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MKE's stolen car epidemic: 11% of car thefts result in arrest, 5% prosecuted in record year

Aftermath of a car theft in Milwaukee
Posted at 5:25 PM, Mar 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-02 19:49:20-05

MILWAUKEE — Police data shows Milwaukee’s car theft epidemic is only getting worse this year after a record amount were stolen in 2021.

Milwaukee police records from the past year shows about one out of every ten reported car thefts in the city resulted in an arrest and just one out of every 20 ended with prosecution. New information from the district attorney’s office shows a vast majority of those who actually face charges in these crimes are 16 and younger.

Celina Stribbling says her Kia was stolen a month ago while she was working downtown.

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"I do have a steering wheel lock, and the one day I didn't put it on is when they stole it,” she said.

Stribbling says she immediately filed a police report and also posted on social media to ask the community to keep an eye out. She says she was shocked after strangers sent her videos of someone driving her car recklessly on the city’s north-side on the same day it was stolen.

"I was more upset after getting those videos of people like riding around and people telling me, ‘oh, I saw it here, I saw it there’, and I'm just like, ‘yeah,’” Stribbling said.

Four days later, Stribbling says police found her car ditched downtown, leaving her on the hook for $850 in repairs after insurance covered the rest.

"Were the thieves who stole this ever held accountable?" TMJ4 News asked. "Not that I know of, no,” Stribbling replied. “That makes me upset because I was at work in broad daylight."

About 10,500 cars were reported stolen in Milwaukee in 2021. Milwaukee police data shows only 11 percent of those car thefts resulted in an arrest.

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Inspector Paul Lough says car thefts can be difficult to investigate because the stolen cars are often ditched before police can catch the suspects.

"Even though there's a decrease in the percentage of arrests, the actual number of arrests has gone up,” he said. “They're still doing diligent work and the compassion is there, the dedication is there, it's just that the numbers right now, the number of auto thefts right now is outweighing our total arrests.”

To address the issue, Inspector Lough says MPD launched a new car theft task force at the beginning of the year to target repeat offenders. A recent search warrant shows the task force found six stolen vehicles in the back lot of a vacant home on Milwaukee’s north side.

"We have investigators in conjunction with analysts and officers assigned at all seven districts and they're going after what we've identified as the most prolific car thieves and that's through past arrests, social media intelligence, finger prints, interviews, and we're really hoping that will help us start to get a grasp on what's going on,” Inspector Lough said.

Data from the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office shows less than 5 percent of reported car thefts in 2021 result in prosecution.

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The D.A.’s office says arrests don’t always lead to charges due to the burden of proof needed to convict. Oftentimes, the evidence provided isn’t substantial enough to build a case.

A deeper dive into the data shows who is being held accountable. 300 juveniles were charged last year with a total of 396 car thefts last year. Meanwhile, the D.A.’s office says just 99 adults were charged with auto thefts. Stribbling says her frustrations start and end with the thieves who are responsible.

“It's fun for you, but you're destroying other people's lives and things that they're doing, especially when they're working hard for their cars,” she said.

While car thefts skyrocketed over the past year, carjackings have gone down, and police say those are much more serious crimes. MPD believes that’s a direct correlation to a rise in car thefts.

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