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Representatives from several nonprofit and government agencies gathered at Mt. Zion Baptist Church yesterday to form an emergency strategy to address a sharp spike in vehicle theft by a relatively small number of teens, forming a plan to aggressively intervene with the families of several young offenders. In the meantime, there’s one thing you can do to help: don’t leave your keys in your car.

Just this month, in fact, 54 cars have been stolen in the City of Madison alone. Of those, 51 had keys in them and 39 were left running unattended.

“It’s virtually nonexistent” for cars to be burglarized or hot-wired, said Madison Police Sergeant Rahim Rahaman. “It’s an opportunity crime.”

Rahaman said 505 vehicles were stolen in Madison in 2017 alone, up sharply from previous years, most of them left idling or with keys in them. Most cars are recovered, but most of those stealing them are not caught. Rahaman said he believes it’s a group of 10 – 14 teens aged 13 to 16 responsible for most of the increase.

Vehicle thefts are a problem not only because of the damage done to cars, but because of the danger young drivers pose.

“We’re getting closer and closer to the point where someone is going to die,” said Madison Police Captain Cory Nelson.

Both Nelson and Fitchburg Police Chief Don Bates said their departments do not engage in high-speed chases of stolen vehicles because of the potential danger posed to the community.

“What does a 13-year-old know about driving a car, about controlling a car? We need to do something about this. We are going to lose some kids,” Bates said.

Bates said law enforcement efforts to reach out to youth so far have come up short.

“From what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, they haven’t heard us,” he said. “I’m not sure what it’s going to take for them to understand this is serious.”

That’s why Pastor Marcus Allen called the meeting Tuesday — to gather resources to address the issue across agencies. About three dozen people attended, including representatives of the Madison Mayor’s office, Madison Police, Madison Metropolitan School District, Fitchburg Police, Dane County Human Services, Joining Forces for Families, Focused Interruption Coalition, and others.

“My purpose here is not to start a new initiative or program,” Allen said. “The only purpose we are here is to keep these boys and girls out of cars that don’t belong to them. It’s going to take a collaborative effort. My purpose for today is to bridge the gaps.”A

After some sharing of statistics and information — including the Madison Police Department’s assessment that a group of 10 – 14 teenagers with gang affiliations are involved in one way or another with most of the car thefts — several people listed resources that could be made available for long-term interventions. But none of that seemed quite urgent enough for some.

“We need to engage these kids today,” said Madison Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes, a former Madison Police Detective.

After some brainstorming and discussion of obstacles to intervention — one of which is confidentiality of juveniles in the justice system, which can impede sharing of information across agencies — it was agreed that an immediate intervention strategy would be deployed, beginning with a partnership between Dane County social workers and Madison Metropolitan School District to reach out to the families of the teens to obtain permission to gather a team of social service professionals to construct targeted interventions to get the kids on the right track.

Several of the youth in question are already in detention, and some are “AWOL,” police said. Still, County social workers said they could connect with the families, even if the location of the teens isn’t known.

County and school social workers agreed to begin outreach to families as soon as this week, but said it might take up to three weeks before family meetings and interventions could be complete.

In the meantime, police and officials agreed that the community needs a widespread awareness campaign educating people on the danger of leaving their cars running unattended. No concrete plans were made for that, however.

Another community meeting will be scheduled for next week to follow up on intervention strategies.

 

Written by Robert Chappell

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