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Fairfax County’s ACE unit combats increasing auto thefts

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(The Center Square) – Auto theft is on the rise nationally, and it’s been particularly bad in the capital region, like many other urban areas. And some law enforcement are ratcheting up their response, like the Fairfax County Police Department.

Nationwide, car thefts rose almost 11% last year, according to FBI statistics cited by CBS News. In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, auto thefts grew by almost 15%.

For the northern Virginia suburbs, vehicle thefts have grown increasingly bad within the past five years. Some localities have had increases approaching 200%, though most are closer to 100%.

In March 2022, the Fairfax County Police Department formed its Auto Crime Enforcement Unit, or ACE for short, to face the challenge head on. The unit became active a month later.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ annual Report on Crime and Crime Control mentioned the unit and some of its success.

During the first four months of 2022, “Fairfax County experienced a 46% increase in auto theft compared to the same time frame in 2021,” the report said. “By the end of 2022, that increase dropped to 8% compared to the previous year.”

Comprised of six full-time detectives, two supervisors and analytical support, ACE is still hard at work.

The unit required additional training before it was ready to be up and running, as its members often apprehend stolen vehicles while they’re occupied.

“They did more training on those felony vehicle stops and vehicle stopping techniques in order to make sure they were fluid and seamless, since they work as a team,” Capt. Anne Rizza told The Center Square.

While some factors – like a viral TikTok showing how to boost certain Kias and Hyundais – have uniquely played into the recent escalation of auto theft, others are reliably present wherever auto theft proliferates.

“Auto theft is a property crime, similar to shoplifting and larceny. And generally, those types of crimes are driven by economic issues – people laid off, the economy in a downturn,” Rizza said.

Carelessness, like leaving keys or valuables in one’s car, technology and the availability of cheap but useful tools have contributed to the problem as well.

“Because technology is advancing so quickly, car manufacturers’ security system enhancements are lagging other technology,” Rizza said. “There are gaps. And also, technology is becoming cheaper – so things that used to only be affordable for a car manufacturer or a mechanic shop, now you can buy on Amazon.”

The unit’s goal is to not only recover stolen vehicles but to connect the crime with an offender. To track down a missing car, ACE often uses tracking technology like OnStar or the victim’s Apple devices, if the victim GPS-tagged the car (another way property owners can safeguard their vehicles). ACE also heavily relies on its regional partners, which can expedite the recovery of a vehicle and the apprehension of a suspect.

“We’re always looking to make more connections, both within our region and our county,” Rizza said. “Our unit has made a lot of relationships with auto manufacturers and dealerships.”

In fact, the unit has made a couple arrests based on the help it has received from such local partners, Lt. Jim Curry told The Center Square.

In 2022, the ACE unit filed 313 felony charges, 102 misdemeanor charges and seized 18 firearms, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ report.

ACE’s work doesn’t just ensure that criminals get caught and residents’ property is recovered; it’s likely preventing other crimes from being committed that could further endanger the public, lawmen say.

“While it’s true that stolen vehicles are property crimes,” Rizza said, “the biggest thing we’ve seen in the last couple years is that a lot of times, these stolen vehicles are being used in other crimes afterwards.”

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