Motor vehicle thefts in Wisconsin have dropped from their most recent peak in 2015, but Republican lawmakers are calling for stronger penalties and greater resources to combat an apparent upward trend.
One bill in the State Assembly would establish a mandatory minimum penalty of 30 days in jail for vehicle theft or fleeing an officer. Another bill, this one in the Senate, would authorize the Department of Administration to award grants to municipalities and counties for additional policing to address automobile theft.
The senate bill instructs the DOA to prioritize areas where car theft is more prevalent, but also requires the grants be distributed “in both urban and rural communities.”
Republican State Representative Rob Hutton of Brookfield authored the assembly bill. Hutton says legislators view car theft as a statewide problem rather than a strictly “urban” one.
“When you look at some of the statistics that [the Department of Justice] is reporting from the Uniform Crime Reporting data, we’re seeing significant increases. When you look at the last four years from 2014 to 2018, [there are] increases in vehicle theft offenses in Dane County, as an example, are up 130 percent,” Hutton says. “An area of Winnebago County, which is more of a rural area, is up 125 percent, and another being Outagamie County, again just three prime examples, that one is up 105 percent. So, it’s easy to focus on one area of the state and say we need to address this issue, but when you look at the base statistics around vehicle theft, you can see increasing numbers on a statewide basis that are quite alarming.”
According to information from the DOJ, motor vehicle thefts in Dane, Winnebago, and Outagamie counties are indeed higher than their 2014 levels, but thefts statewide have dropped from a peak of just over 11,000 in 2015 to about 8,400 in 2018.
The starkest drop may be in Milwaukee County, which reported over 2000 fewer car thefts in 2018 than it had in 2014.
According to that same information from the DOJ, Dane County reported 783 car thefts in 2018, up nearly a hundred from the number of thefts in 2017.
Still, Elise Schaffer, the Public Information Officer for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, says the majority of those cases are happening in Madison.
“We have had our fair share of cases, there’s too many in general, but the city is definitely seeing more than we are in the county,” Schaffer says.
Joel DeSpain is the Public Information Officer for the Madison Police Department. According to him, 435 cars were stolen in Madison alone in 2019, up from 417 in 2018.
DeSpain says that with more resources, the department could be more responsive to car thefts. But, he doesn’t think it would stop car thefts altogether by simply adding more police.
“Beyond just additional officers, we need to try to find creative ways to change the mindsets of these young people, because obviously there’s not a deterrent in the system to date that is getting them to change their ways,” DeSpain says. “So, I think if we could get to more proactive policing and really working with young people and trying to have them make different decisions, that’s really what I think is necessary to reduce this overall crime wave that we’ve been seeing.”
DeSpain also says that 62 cars were stolen in Madison last month. That’s up from 58 in January 2019.
Both the Wisconsin Professional Police Association and the City of Milwaukee have lobbied in support of additional grants for policing.
A spokesperson from the City of Milwaukee says they support the bill because the City generally welcomes any additional funding, not because it specifically addresses public safety.
Both bills are currently sitting in committee.