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Arizona Auto Theft Moves Into Fast Lane

It could rank highest among the 50 states

IT'S been a busy year for Tucson Police Sgt. Gary Okray.

Since January, Sergeant Okray and his men have busted 10 chop shops - secret garages where car thieves strip stolen cars for parts. The police have seized not only scores of vehicles, but they also have arrested dozens of suspects and found caches of drugs, weapons, and other stolen property.

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Okray heads up a special multi-agency task force formed to crack down on auto theft. But despite the task force's success, Okray says he doesn't have money to keep it going after July.

"Crimes of violence take higher priority, and rightly so," in the battle for tight law-enforcement dollars, Okray says.

Still, Arizona is paying the price for neglecting auto theft.

While nationwide auto-theft rates have dropped 7 percent since 1991, Arizona's rates have jumped by more than 30 percent, and it could rank highest among the 50 states once 1994 national crime statistics are finalized, according to the Arizona Auto Theft Prevention Authority.

Analysts cite several reasons for Arizona's increase:

* Car thieves are flocking to Arizona from neighboring California, which has cracked down on car theft.

* Rules for registering and titling cars are lax.

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* More stolen cars are crossing the border into Mexico.

*Juvenile crime has increased.

California, which led the nation in auto-theft rates in 1993 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), has improved enforcement.

"California has been doing a better job, and that may be driving some of these people into our area," says Lloyd Stewart, a Phoenix-based investigator with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Arizona also has been relatively lax in its car registration and titling requirements, failing to keep pace with the sophisticated methods of some thieves.

"They have factory die stamps to change vehicle-identification numbers on cars, and they use computers to make fraudulent documents," says Sgt. Dale Doucet of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Many believe Arizona's border with Mexico is another reason for the state's auto-theft problem. But officials say relatively few stolen cars end up in Mexico. They estimate at least 60 percent are recovered in the city in which they were stolen.

Nevertheless, fewer and fewer cars are being recovered in drivable condition, as thieves find they can make more money and take fewer risks if they strip the car and sell it for parts.

"It used to be they'd take the stereo, but they wouldn't destroy the car," Okray says. "Now we're finding cars stripped and burned in the desert."

Some states, such as Texas and Michigan, have made a dent in the problem by setting up auto-theft prevention authorities - state boards designed to fund law-enforcement efforts like Okray's. In most cases, these boards get money from $1 assessments on insurance policies.

But Arizona insurance companies balked at the surcharge, arguing that everyone, not just policy-holders, benefitted from lower auto-theft rates, and thus taxpayers should foot the bill for an auto-theft authority.

So while the state has had an auto-theft prevention authority since 1992, it was never properly funded and has been unable to do its job. Efforts are under way in the Arizona legislature to use tax money or a car-registration fee to raise $3.5 million annually for the prevention authority.

At a recent hearing to generate support for the funding plan, witnesses told legislators that Arizona needs to put money not only in law enforcement, but also in its overcrowded juvenile justice system.

Some experts say Arizona's auto-theft rates are connected to the overall rise in juvenile crime here.

"All these efforts we have to put people in jail will be meaningless unless we have something to back it up," says John Foreman, presiding judge of the Maricopa County Juvenile Court.

Mr. Foreman says Arizona has such a lack of detention space for juveniles that young car thieves are often let out within hours of their arrests.

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