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Southwest Colorado sees increase in auto thefts

State Patrol offers training to local law enforcement

Car thefts are increasing in Southwest Colorado faster than in the state as a whole, according to data presented at an information session by Coloradans Against Auto Theft on Wednesday.

Research from the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority shows thefts increased 27 percent in Southwest Colorado from 2016 to 2017, compared with an 8 percent increase across the entire state. John Henry, a communications consultant for CAAT, and Colorado State Patrol Capt. Mark Mason presented the data to members of the Cortez Police Department and Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office at City Hall, just before hosting a two-day training for local law enforcement on auto theft prevention. They also offered a few tips on how civilians could help prevent auto thefts.

CAAT is an education program organized by the state-funded CATPA, which also funds several other initiatives to help local law enforcement fight auto theft. Mason is part of the Southwest chapter of another such initiative, Beat Auto Theft Through Law Enforcement. Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin is a member of CATPA’s board of directors.

Mason listed statistics from Colorado as a whole, showing not only an increase in auto thefts, but also an increase in accompanying “secondary” crimes. He said the evidence shows most recent auto thefts were committed in order to facilitate other crimes, like burglary and drug trafficking across state lines. Montezuma County Detective Tyson Cox said that lines up with his experience in the Four Corners over the past few years.

“I’d say probably 60 percent of our steals end up in Farmington,” he said.

He added that he believed the increase in auto thefts in Montezuma County “directly correlates” to an increase in drug felonies, which he said have gone up about 33 percent over the past four years.

Out of more than 15 Southwest counties that make up CATPA’s Four Corners region, Henry said Montezuma County is one of the five counties with the highest concentrations of car thefts. Montrose County appears to get the most thefts, with 100 reported in 2017. La Plata had 58 reported thefts in the same year, Delta County had 31 and Alamosa County had 19. Montezuma County came in fourth place with 23 thefts.

All those numbers pale in comparison to the Denver area, where the same data showed hundreds of vehicles were stolen in 2017, but they mark a significant increase over previous years.

Mason said Southwest Colorado’s increase in auto thefts could be a result of criminals fleeing the Denver area, where arrests went up in 2017 and law enforcement is focusing more efforts on catching car thieves.

Henry said part of law enforcement’s job is to educate the public about how to make their vehicles harder and less tempting to steal. He advised civilians to always lock their car doors, and never leave anything valuable inside unattended, especially not weapons or ammunition. He also advised against leaving a car running to warm up, a practice known as “puffing.” Those practices are sometimes more common in rural areas with a historically lower crime rate, he said.

“It takes a significant change in people’s lifestyle,” he said. “They’re used to leaving their car unlocked. They’re accustomed to leaving, perhaps, the keys in the car.”

A “puffing” car was stolen in Cortez in late January, leading police on a search that ended in Dolores. It is illegal to leave a car running unattended in Cortez.

Henry and Mason also presented data showing which vehicle types are more likely to be stolen in the Southwest. Pickup trucks and passenger cars were the most commonly stolen vehicles in 2017, with Ford F-series pickups stolen more often than any other model. Other commonly stolen models included the Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Ram, GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Trailblazer.

Overall, Southwest Colorado law enforcement had about a 73 percent success rate in returning vehicles to their owners in 2017, but they had less success with stolen trailers, which had just a 48 percent recovery rate. Statewide, the recovery rate for stolen vehicles is 87 percent, which is above the national average but lower than the 92 percent recovery rate reported in 2016.

Mason and other State Patrol personnel spent the rest of Wednesday training police and deputies on how to handle auto thefts, and planned to continue on Thursday. Mason said this was the first CATPA-sponsored training in Montezuma County that he could remember.

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