Hot Cars in the City
May 15, 2006

It was a hot summer night in Regina’s inner city when 16 year-old Cody was out walking with his buddies. “We were drinking,” he recalls. His girlfriend had left the group earlier to go out with her friends, “after they left, my buddy’s like, ‘Well, let’s go get ‘em.” None of the teenagers had a vehicle. Cody’s friend suggested they pick up a car. “I wasn’t really down for that, cause I don’t really steal cars.” In fact, Cody had been charged with car theft on one previous occasion. Regardless, the teenagers were all a little drunk, and began scoping out the possibilities. They soon found an unlocked vehicle down an alley. Using a screwdriver to start the car, they were on the road within minutes.

A handsome, clean-cut kid, Cody ­grimaces occasionally as he recounts the night. “I regret it very much,” he says quietly before forging on. The three boys took off to find his girlfriend. Cody was driving. “I know,” he says cringing again. Then counters defensively, “I was all good ‘til I got cut (smoked weed)…” He voice peters out when he realizes how that sounds. He returns to his story.

On his way to pick up another buddy, they came across a couple of girls they knew. The girls jumped in. Someone lit a joint. Cody had a toke, maybe more. “Then, I don’t know, we were just about there and I’m taking a turn, then… I blacked out,” recounts the high school student, shaking his head again. He “came to” a few minutes later, to the sound of yelling and crying. One of the girls in the back had broken her leg. His friends had bolted.

Disoriented, Cody tried to leave too but the front of the car was crushed in on him, pinning his left thigh to the seat. “I couldn’t feel anything though, I was too intoxicated.” He passed out again.

The next time he regained consciousness, the ambulance was there. After maneuvering him out of the driver’s seat, both he and the girl were rushed to the hospital. Cody stayed for almost three weeks. He’d lost a lot of blood, injured his hip and needed surgery to repair a busted femur bone.

Police Chief Cal Johnston is reaching out to the Aboriginal community in an effort to find more effective ways to reduce teenaged crime in his area. (Photo: Regina Police Service)

Cody got the scoop from his friends later. Apparently, after blacking out, he careened off the road and blasted through a decorative brick wall across someone’s front yard. Impact sent bricks flying but, luckily, the car stopped short of the house. “It was a bad accident,” says Cody.

Or a series of bad decisions. Either way, Cody had jettisoned himself back into the justice system and the front lines of the Regina Police Services’ Auto Theft Strategy.

A police-led crackdown on offenders, this strategy was launched in 2002 after car thefts hit anarchic levels. “We’d always known we had a problem but at the end of 2001, things really got bad,” recalls Regina Police Service Chief Cal Johnston. “Really bad” meant 3,844 cars reported stolen that year. With a population of just over 180,000, Regina’s auto theft crime rate, per capita, was 361% higher than the national average. For the fifth year running, Regina maintained its status as the auto theft capital of Canada.

The problem went beyond property theft and municipal reputation. Additional to the usual recklessness associated with so-called “joy-riding” was a dangerous new element. Increasingly, thieves were taunting authorities, trying to provoke high-speed chases, and, in some cases, deliberately trying to injure officers.

The situation had become untenable. It was time to seize back some control. The police service went into red alert. Officers spent the next seven months building profiles and analyzing offenders. Who was committing these thefts? Did they repeat offend? What were the consequences they received? How long were they in custody? What was their average age? Male or female? Police needed to understand who the offenders were.

They found 83% of those charged with car theft were youths, aged 12 to 19. The typical offender was male and Aboriginal. He was also impoverished, his family had substance abuse issues, they lived in the inner city, and moved around a lot. In a word, Cody.

They also discovered that a small number of offenders, 16-19 year old males, were responsible for a bulk of the crimes. “They’re offending constantly. If they’re out, they’re stealing cars,” says Johnston. “Ten-a-day, some days. That’s how bad our problem was.” Called the Chronic Repeat Offenders (CROs), these young men were responsible for about 90% of Regina’s auto thefts.

“They used to compete against each other, to see who could steal the most cars,” says Rob Nixon, a youth probation officer with Saskatchewan Corrections and Public Safety, who has worked, in various capacities, with troubled kids for 20 years. “We had one kid in here, three or four years ago, who got about 40 cars in one weekend.”

The chronic offenders were followed by a second group, responsible for about 19% of the crimes. They had committed more than one car theft, but it hadn’t become a regular habit. Aged 14 to 16, these offenders weren’t yet in custody, but were involved with the justice system, having racked up one or two past convictions. Cody.

Behind these teens are the up-and-comers, 11 to 13 year old boys and girls. Responsible for about 1% of the crimes, they were stealing their first or second car, but most hadn’t previously been caught.

“We had one kid in here, three or four years ago, who got about 40 cars in one weekend.” (Photo by Fran Yanor)

Then, came the innocents. The youngest group, eight, nine, 10 years old; these kids were siblings of the other groups. They may have been “part of the fun,” riding around in a stolen car with an older brother, but yet hadn’t stolen a car themselves. “But they are part of your problem because they’re going to become the [next] group,” says Johnston, “you have a cycle going.”

This cycle relied on the fastest growing segment of the population in Regina – Aboriginal youths. The city already had, and has, the second highest Métis/First Nation population per capita of any Canadian urban centre. Aboriginal people, it was predicted, would make up 20% of the overall population in a few years. “When you start to contemplate that one out of 10, or perhaps, one out of five of your citizens are First Nations or Métis, with all that brings – background, history, values, family, all of that… it would serve you well to know and understand those citizens,” says Johnston.

Under Johnston’s tenure, the Regina Police Service (RPS) has made a concerted effort to not just understand but also reach out to, include, and become actively involved in the Aboriginal community. Some ground had been broken before Johnston’s arrival, but certainly relations with the Aboriginal community have flourished under his leadership.

A Cultural Relations Unit liaises with the Aboriginal community working on a number of Aboriginal outreach programs, including, a youth police cadet corps for inner city kids; summer camps and cultural programs for Aboriginal youths in the correctional system; cultural training, like sweat lodges, for new police recruits, and police participation in traditional ceremonies within the city and on First Nation reserves. As of 2002, 6.8% of the RPS workforce were of Aboriginal descent.

In Regina, Aboriginal people tend to live in clusters. According to the University of Saskatchewan’s Atlas of Urban Aboriginal Peoples, the “level of segregation” of Aboriginal people has never been so profound. Aboriginal residents comprise as much as 40% in some pockets of the downtown and inner city. North Central’s inner city neighborhood, which accounts for 6% of Regina’s population, represents as much as 24% of the calls for service.

“That’s why we spend a lot of time working on inner city issues,” says Johnston. “A lot of our resources. A lot of our work flows out of a relatively small area of our city.”

And it’s a hotspot for car thefts. After evaluating the auto theft crime situation in 2001, RPS released their findings to the public. It was obvious that if something didn’t change, the cycle would keep feeding itself to even higher levels. Public pressure mounted, which, in turn, precipitated an across-the-board willingness to deal with the problem. The RPS began working with city hall and representatives from the other sectors that dealt with offenders, asking all front line service deliverers to work together to come up with a plan.

(Photo: Fran Yanor)

From this, the Auto Theft Strategy was established, with an ambitious goal of reducing auto thefts by 50% over four years. The approach was collaborative, requiring cooperation and communication between police, probation officers, corrections officers, social workers, teachers, and the community.

First, they had to understand the perspective of the offender. There was no organized crime ring stealing cars for profitable export across the international border… at least, not yet. Instead, these kids were chasing the thrill. Race ‘em, smash ‘em and burn ‘em. Maybe provoke a police pursuit along the way. “Not related to something that might mean something to more mainstream values,” explains Johnston. “It’s not about that. The value system that’s driving this behaviour is an inner city value system that’s youth-based.”

Getting in touch with that value system and understanding it has been an integral challenge for police. “The other thing we did around auto theft is characterize it properly,” says Johnston. “This is a serious crime problem in our city. Let’s stop using words like ‘joy-riding.’”
Then they came up with a planned approach that targeted each group in the cycle. Youth probation has a team strictly devoted to dealing with auto theft offenders, particularly, the CROs. Probation officers perform curfew checks and communicate with the police, schools and the families of offenders.

A big part of the initiative is keeping the kids in school. “We have the school call every time the kid’s not there,” says Nixon. “We make people in the community aware that the kid is offending quite a bit,” If a chronic offender goes missing, the police are called immediately. “If he’s not in school, we [find] him,” says Nixon. “The idea is to hold them accountable.”

Police actively seek them out. “We’ll find them in stolen cars,” says Johnston. “We’ll find them committing and then we’ll arrest them.” The offender then gets fingerprinted, photographed and a special file is started, similar to a serious violent crime file, involving, a prosecutor, victim impact statements, and all the risks and harms associated with the offender and his crimes. “It’s a big partnership here, not just the police,” says Johnston. Police then charge them with every criminal act committed. “We show no slacking.”

Another change in approach comes on the release of the repeat offender. Curfew checks. Prior to the auto theft ­initiative, police didn’t do curfew checks. Five years ago, they started doing them. “It was the only way to bring the numbers down,” says Johnston. Last year, police and probation officers performed a total of about 9,000 curfew checks. “People who are offending or into offending patterns, they’re not dumb,” says Johnston.

(Photo: Fran Yanor)

“They know when someone is really keeping tabs on them.” That vigilance will pay off. The offender will know he’s really being watched. For some, it will be enough to keep them home.

When Nixon does a curfew check on a CRO and the youth isn’t there, he calls it in. “Within an hour, there’s a warrant on the system for the offender,” he says. When the kid is high risk and he’s not where he’s supposed to be, it’s trouble. “He’s probably out stealing cars. Go [find] him,” Nixon says. “We keep them on a very short leash.”

With control, comes greater continuity. When offenders are released, they now have the same caseworker from the time they’re in custody to the time they come back through the integration, “which is a big change,” says Johnston. The caseworker will help find employment and stabilize offenders on their release. “We’re tough on these guys but we’re also very focused on their problem,” adds Johnston. “If they come out and they don’t have some hope and some starting point… nothing changes, they’ll just start again.”

To that end, social workers and probation officers complete an assessment tool that lists the risk factors for the chronic offenders and the second group of repeat offenders. This assessment identifies fundamental things that are lacking in the youth’s life, which both professionals try to help the youth address.

Housing issues are huge. “Our kids have gone to all the inner city schools,” says Nixon. “The parents have substance abuse problems and are constantly uprooting them and moving. Our kids are all victims of that.” Then there’s the state of many inner city rental houses. Some still have dirt floors. “That’s where our clients live, in ----holes.”

To combat transience, police got involved in another multi-partnered initiative. Working the fire and health departments, housing standards enforcement, community services and the local community league, special teams inspected houses, ordered repairs and assisted families who needed to relocate to better homes. The city also has a couple of housing programs, one of which is partnered with a neighbouring first Nation community, aimed at increasing home ownership in the inner city.

Police Chief Cal Johnston conducts youth police cadet corps inspection. (Photo: Regina Police Service)

In another move, for continuity sake, a youth probation officer will take on all the files in one family. Once a probation officer is assigned one offender, he’ll automatically get any other siblings who enter the justice system as well. “You get to know the CRO’s family really well. The more you get to know [the family dynamics], the better it is,” confirms Nixon, “and the easier it is to hold them accountable.” At any given time, Nixon might have a chronic repeat offender in and out of secured custody; his younger brother, with one or two offences, and a still-younger sibling waiting in the wings.

Cody’s group of 16-19 year olds are monitored intensely. Cody was sentenced to one year. He served eight months in secured custody, four months on probation. He wrote an apology to the family whose yard he wrecked, did community service to work off his fine and attended AA meetings on his release.

Cody isn’t a CRO, but he is under the mechanisms of the newly vigilant curfew check system. “This group here, we want to let them know we’re around,” says Johnston. “We monitor them. We visit them if they’ve got conditions. We have a database, and we keep track of them. In other words we let them know that there is a consequence to what they’re doing.” After two curfew breeches, and revisiting the secured facility, Cody decided to keep his head down and his profile low. “I was tired of everyone telling me what to do,” says Cody. “I wanted my freedom back.” So, he stayed home.

The next group, first time offenders, are diverted to an alternative measures program. It teaches them about the risks, the harm, the impact, and alternative choices to stealing cars.

For the youngest group, police had a marketing campaign: over-prevention, curriculum, and a message about the dangers of auto theft. “To counter the message that they’re getting from their older siblings and relatives,” says Johnston. This campaign was targeted to the kids most at risk, grade six students in inner city schools.

The collaborative approach has made all the difference. The youth probation officer is talking to the auto theft investigator, who’s talking to the correction officer, who’s talking to the social worker. “They’re all in a circle. And they’re all talking about these kids.” Before the auto theft strategy, “I wouldn’t talk to a cop more than once a year,” says Nixon. “Now, I’m talking to cops every week, or every day almost… especially if I have a high risk.”

 “It is a fairly involved, fairly sophisticated plan,” says Johnston. “It was certainly created out of pressure, but it has proven worthwhile.” Worthwhile, meaning, the cycle is broken, everyone thinks. Thefts have been reduced from 3,800 in 2001 to 2,000 in 2005. That’s a 44% reduction. “Our levels are still high,” Johnston concedes. “We won’t ease up [because] the cycle doesn’t just vanish.” The next goal is a 5% reduction each year for the next three years. At that point, Regina will hover around the national average. Meanwhile, the RPS can redirect some attention to other areas. Next on the list is inner city street muggings.

The multi-partnered initiative found that some homes were in such disrepair that the families were relocated and the dwellings torn down. ( Photo: Regina Police Service)

For Cody’s part, he’s living life without probation restrictions. He and his friends now stay in for the most part. “We listen to music, play video games,” says Cody. He wants to play on his school basketball team next year. He hasn’t stolen another car and has managed to keep his name off the CRO list. But he did have another brush with the law. Theft and assault. He was drunk and got aggressive late one night while visiting a convenience store. Has he thought about AA? “I don’t have a drinking problem.”

Despite his latest incident, he’s adamant he doesn’t want to go back to secure custody and swears he’s wizened up. “I think things through now. Way more than before.” He pauses a moment. “I didn’t really think of the consequences before. Now I do,” he says. “I don’t want to get into any more trouble. Eighteen’s coming up quick.”

Cody may be as much an indicator of the program’s success as any crime rate numbers. Now 17, if he makes the next six months to his 18th birthday without stealing another car, then Johnston will have achieved what he set out to do in 2002. With Cody, at least, the cycle will be broken.

Johnston admits the approach, analysis and understanding of the car theft issues may not fit conventional assumptions about offending patterns.
“People like things simple. They like things straightforward. They want the guy who stole that Dodge to go to jail,” says Johnston. “But the guy who stole your Dodge today was at some point an eight year-old ­getting ready to steal cars. And there’s a connection there. If you understand that, you can stop this.”

Fran Yanor is a freelance writer based in Edmonton.
© FrontLine Defence 2006