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Juveniles, Joyrides & Justice: State lawmakers are calling for changes, but will it help?

Car Theft Public Awareness
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Signs outside of the South Windsor Police Department encourage residents to lock their cars at night.

In the final installment of The Accountability Project's series Juveniles, Joyrides & Justice, we examine proposed solutions to car thefts and police pursuits.

As medics tried to save a jogger who New Britain police say was mowed down by a teen driving a stolen car, onlookers at the scene had some strong feelings about what they were witnessing.

“They’re giving him CPR. This is why they shouldn’t be chasing nobody,” a video of the aftermath shows one bystander saying.

New Britain officials report police were only involved here because a resident whose wallet the teens stole was chasing the kids through residential neighborhoods for over 11 minutes. That driver — a 52-year old man — allegedly refused to stop despite the police dispatcher ordering him to do so and the kids throwing the wallet out of the car.

New Britain Police Chief Christopher Chute said he believes the adult driver, like so many other victims of juvenile crime, lost faith in the system.

“What we’re seeing in this incident was a manifestation of some frustration where you see a victim seeing a crime being committed against them, and they know that not much is going to happen — so they’re taking it into their own hands,” he said during an interview.

“We can’t have a society where there’s retaliation and going after anybody who commits a crime. That’s the police job. Let us handle it.”

New Britain Chief of Police Christopher Chute
Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
The corner of East and Belden streets in New Britain, shown here on July 14, 2021, is the location of an incident where a civilian chased a juvenile in a stolen car, resulting in a crash and the death of a bystander.

This case — and a pandemic bump in car thefts — has thrust Connecticut’s juvenile justice system into the spotlight.

Republican lawmakers want to put ankle-monitoring devices on more young offenders and relax state laws so police can pursue children in stolen cars more often.

“They need to be able to address high-speed chases, if that is the decision by the officers engaged, and they can do it safely. That’s their decision, not ours,” said state Sen. John Kissel, a Republican from Enfield and the longtime minority leader of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. ”But I feel and my caucus feels that right now, we’ve cast a bucket of cold water on law enforcement.”

Democrats, however, say the easy solution is for people to start locking their cars.

Many see larger societal issues contributing to kids getting into trouble — and more state funding is needed to help.

“It's not about car thefts in the suburbs at all,” Claudine Fox from ACLU Connecticut said during a news conference outside the state Capitol over the summer. “It’s a discussion about how two communities separated by a few miles have vastly different living standards, and primarily people of color are stuck with the short end of the stick on either side. Do we value cars? Or do we value kids?”

“The investment that makes our community healthy and strong can literally prevent crime,” she said. “Are you here to invest in communities and people? Or do you believe in punishment and harm?”

In New Britain, one of the poorest cities in America, the car in the fatality was allegedly stolen after the keys were left inside. The teen who was allegedly driving had an ankle-monitoring bracelet, and the police chief said his officers would not have engaged in a high-speed chase with the teen over a stolen car.

“We’re not going to pursue any vehicle that is only a suspect of a property crime; it’s just not going to happen,” Chute said. “The only time we’re going to pursue a car is if they were engaged in a violent crime where they have imminent threat to somebody else.”

So would the jogger still be alive if not for the adult driver allegedly chasing the kids?

“Yes, 110% yes,” New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart said. “I think that those kids realized very quickly that they were being followed, and were trying to get away from him and put the foot on the gas pedal and were focused on trying to get away from the guy and not paying attention to what was in front of them.”

That driver has been charged with reckless driving and endangerment, both misdemeanors.

GOP car theft presser
House Republicans
Republican state legislators and New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart and the city police chief take part in a news conference outside the state Capitol over the summer. The event happened shortly after a jogger was struck and killed in New Britain by a stolen vehicle.

Recognizing the threat high-speed chases pose, state policies changed in December 2019 to restrict when local police can chase someone.

In Danbury earlier this year, the new policy was in place when police began chasing someone they say tried to rob a drug store. Under the new policy, pursuits are allowed when public safety is imminently at risk.

“Do yourself a favor to pull over. Pull over,” the officer said in dashboard camera video recording, which was obtained by Connecticut Public.

The video illustrates how quickly suspects fleeing police can jeopardize public safety, as the vehicle is seen speeding and crossing into the other lane.

Talking to her commander, the officer asks, “I’m still following, what do you want me to do? He’s going into oncoming traffic, oncoming traffic.”

She’s then told, “Disengage. Disengage. Be advised. Disengage.”

Police pursue robbery suspect in Danbury, Connecticut

Some blame the state changing who police can pursue for more car thieves getting away and getting the help they need from the courts. State arrest data show that while car thefts increased, the number of people arrested stayed the same.

State lawmakers changed the pursuit laws in response to police shootings of motorists in New Haven and Wethersfield.

Research recently completed by Sacred Heart University found that officers in Windsor and Wethersfield had the highest police pursuit rate in the state the year before the law changed.

One out of every 6 pursuits reported resulted in a crash, and 1 out of every 17 resulted in an injury.

Newtown Police Chief Jim Viadero was the chairman of the state panel that created the new pursuit policy. He and others expect the number of dangerous police chases to drop.

“You’re not seeing pursuits for motor vehicle violations. You’re not seeing pursuits for stolen cars. You’re gonna see an impact on the amount of pursuits,” he said during an interview.

Ninety percent of the police chases would not have been allowed under the new pursuit standards, according to a Sacred Heart master’s thesis by a student who had access to state police forms. Connecticut Public’s requests to the Lamont administration since early July for access to the police pursuit forms have gone unanswered.

While many stolen vehicles are recovered, a growing number of people say the best way to keep your car safe is to lock it, and don’t leave it running while it warms up.

Some suburban police departments in Connecticut have posted yard signs throughout town telling people to lock their cars.

Several states have launched public campaigns around the issue. In New Jersey, state highway electronic billboards read “Lock it or lose it.” A local news headline reads: “New Jersey authorities are practically begging for you to lock your car.”

New Jersey lock it or lose it campaign
New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety
Billboards paid for by the state of New Jersey are part of an effort to drive down the number of car thefts.

Connecticut has no such campaign.

Mike Lawlor was Gov. Dan Malloy’s criminal justice adviser, and before that he spent decades as the chairman of the committee at the state Capitol that oversaw criminal justice.

“Assuming your goal is reducing the number of auto thefts, the one thing that will work that is not complicated, that is actually free and will be very effective is if starting tomorrow everyone in the state lock their car and took their keys with them. This problem would disappear overnight,” he said.

Maryland has formed a vehicle theft prevention council, which funds grants for things like public awareness campaigns.

“Vehicle theft in Maryland is down. It’s had significant impact. We have 20 grantees where funding goes to,” said Executive Director Christopher T. McDonold.

Some think Connecticut should go one step further and impose financial penalties for those who leave their car running unattended. At least nine states levy such fines, a review by Connecticut Public found.

“Maybe if the law created liability for people whose cars are stolen, because they left their keys in their car, or if insurance regulations reflected that, as something that changes the cost of insurance,” said Hartford City Councilman Josh Michtom, who is also a public defender.
“I am assuming that there are simple ways to change that behavior through financial incentives.”

But Chute, New Britain's police chief, thinks that’s, “victim blaming.”

“That actually hurts to hear,” he said. “Wow. Oh, my gosh. That’s really tough to hear.”

About 1,000 cars are stolen with keys each year in Connecticut, data from the National Crime Insurance Bureau show. That number has remained steady over the last three years. It’s unclear what share of thefts that accounts for here, but nationally 11% of cars are stolen with keys.

Insurance companies are not yet ready to call for a shift in liability to help with this.

“I think more data will help us get a better understanding of the trend and what is happening, why it’s occurring. And I don’t think we’re there yet to make a determination,” said Eric George, president of the Insurance Association of Connecticut, which represents auto insurance companies.

Part of that data collection is placing bait cars to track where they go.

State Republicans want to also track more children who keep breaking the law and aren’t locked up around the clock. State data show that roughly 375 children have ankle-monitoring bracelets throughout the year. Those devices, however, are only able to track if a child is home when they should be. The Republicans want to deploy GPS monitoring instead. Such tracking would be costly. The current devices cost $2.66 per day for each client and $4.54 if their home needs a telephone line, compared to $6.70 a day for GPS. This does not include the cost of having 24/7 monitoring.

While state lawmakers grapple with the best path forward, state data show that motor vehicle thefts are beginning to subside.

Read the rest of the "Juveniles, Joyrides, & Justice" series:

Do you have a story that needs to be investigated? Submit your news tips here or email us at tips@ctpublic.org