Faced with a sharp spike in car thefts, New Jersey’s top law enforcement official said Friday the state is once again allowing police officers to use car chases to pursue auto thieves, reversing a policy put in place just months ago.
Officials also announced the state will use federal coronavirus funds to expand license plate technology to track down stolen vehicles.
Auto thefts have increased significantly in the Garden State since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said as they unveiled the new initiatives during a public event at Marlboro’s township hall.
There were 14,320 vehicles stolen in 2021, and thefts are up 37% compared to last year and 53% compared to 2020, acting state Attorney General Matthew Platkin said.
Platkin added that stolen vehicles are not often “isolated incidents” because they are “increasingly linked” to shootings.
“This is a serious threat to our state’s safety,” he said, stressing the thefts are occurring in urban and suburban areas.
In December, New Jersey installed its first overhaul of the state’s use-of-force policy for police in two decades. Under the update, both auto theft and most drug offenses were removed from the list of crimes in which car pursuits were allowed. Thus, officers could not chase a suspect simply over a stolen car, only for more serious crimes, such as murder and kidnapping.
Officials at the time cited how chases have frequently resulted in injury to officers, third-party victims, and pedestrians. But critics said that change handcuffed officers and made it easier for criminals to get away with car thefts.
Platkin said Friday the state listened to concerns from authorities and will tweak the policy to permit pursuits in car thefts and the “receiving” of a stolen vehicle.
“These changes will give law enforcement the tools that they need to meet the moment and to protect our communities while also being mindful of the inherent risks that come to officer safety and to the public when officers do engage in police pursuits,” he said.
Platkin said the reversal will last at least through the end of the year, and his office will re-evaluate then.
Gov. Phil Murphy, meanwhile, announced the state will use $10 million in funds the state received from the American Rescue Plan — the federal COVID-19 stimulus law — to help local law enforcement agencies buy automatic license plate recognition technology. Departments will be allowed to apply to the state for grant funding.
The technology uses a high-speed, automated camera system that captures and stores images of license plates across the state in a centralized database to help authorities track down stolen cars and arrest suspects. They are installed at both fixed locations and on police cruisers.
Officials said the technology is already being used in urban areas but will now be expanded to suburban areas.
The recent uptick in car thefts has “rattled families,” Murphy said.
“Crime does not stop at the municipal boundaries of our cities,” the governor said. “This investment can mean less officer hours spent chasing leads and more of them spent recovering stolen vehicles and getting car thieves off of our streets.”
Officials said Marlboro, in Monmouth County, is one of the suburban towns seeing an increase.
“The thefts have become more brazen, happening in broad daylight while people are unloading groceries,” Marlboro Mayor Jon Hronik said.
But Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst at left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, criticized the state for using coronavirus aid to increase the license plate technology.
“American Rescue Plan funds were meant to help families and communities harmed most by the pandemic, not to expand police powers,” Ubel said. “Any kind of police access to surveillance technology where they can then store that information shouldn’t be done at all, or at least with great discretion, because we know we have a culture of policing in this state that has resulted in New Jersey having the number one black-white disparity in incarceration in the nation.”
Platkin said officials will “continue to honor the strong privacy protections that have been in place in the state for well over a decade.”
He also noted how the state Attorney General’s Office announced two months ago it would spend $125,000 in federal funds to beef up its auto theft task force.
In addition, Platkin called on residents to lock their car doors and not keep key fobs — remotes to automatically unlock car doors — inside their vehicles. He said most thefts happen when those devices are stored inside a car.
“It turns out if you have a new vehicle, your car is really hard to steal — unless you leave the key fob in it,” the acting attorney general said. “Then it’s remarkably easy to steal.”
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