WA had third-highest rate for vehicle theft in 2022. Pierce County numbers remain high

WA had third-highest rate for vehicle theft in 2022. Pierce County numbers remain high

Washington state has been experiencing drastically higher cases of auto theft since last summer. In fact, it saw the third-highest rate of thefts across all states in 2022.


Recently The News Tribune has reported on a slew of crimes and reckless activity involving stolen vehicles. A man in Tacoma was driving and crashed into and killed the driver of another vehicle earlier this month. Then on Sunday, two teenage boys who were robbing a Gig Harbor gas station fled the scene in a stolen car, crashed it into a building during a police pursuit and fled into a forest on foot.

Local law enforcement says there are two main reasons for it.

Last summer, users on social media apps like TikTok began sharing tactics to exploit vulnerabilities in vehicles produced by Kia and Hyundai. These videos essentially hand criminals a blueprint on how to steal certain types of cars.

Additionally, a law went into effect July 2021 that specifies when and how law enforcement can use force in specific situations. The legislation, HB 1310, was a direct response to the nationwide uproar against excessive use of police force. The law aims to keep police from abuses of power.

Although the new legislation puts law enforcement’s permissible use of force in check, it’s had the unintended effect of emboldening criminals to go all out, says Sgt. Darren Moss, spokesperson with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. Moss says that a few years ago, if a police officer signaled someone driving a car to pull over, they would. Now, thieves are acting with more confidence.

“It’s just out of hand,” Moss said in an interview. “[Criminals] just pulled over in the past. Now that you’ve told them they don’t have to pull over because there’s nothing that’d happen if they don’t, they take off. It’s a no-brainer.”

Rise in WA auto theft

Although vehicle theft is a nationwide issue, such crimes were notably more severe in the Evergreen State than most other locales. Last week, the National Insurance Crime Bureau released its Vehicle Theft Trend Report for 2022, showing that Washington experienced the third-highest rate of auto thefts in the country last year at 46,939. Washington is just behind California at first place for auto thefts in 2022 and Texas at second – both states have a much higher population than Washington.

The Evergreen State also saw a 31% increase in vehicle thefts compared to 2021, the second-highest percent increase behind Illinois at 35%.

The report also identifies the nation’s top 10 metro areas for stolen vehicles. It listed Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue at seventh, comprising 30,572 of the state’s total thefts, or about 65%.

“We are seeing vehicle theft numbers that we haven’t seen in nearly 15 years, and there is very little deterrent to stop criminals from committing these acts as they are just property crimes, like shoplifting,” David J. Glawe, president and CEO of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, stated in the report.

Why vehicles are stolen

There were 748 reported car thefts in Pierce County in February, an average of 75 a day, according to case numbers from the Puget Sound Auto Theft Task Force. This metric is a slight decrease from January and December, with the latter month experiencing the highest number of thefts for 2022.

Pierce County has experienced the second-highest rate of stolen vehicles in the state, behind King County, according to Sgt. Jeff Carroll with the task force.

Even though thefts have gradually decreased, their frequency is still way too high, Moss says. Moss says that the rate of auto theft so far this year is around three times higher compared to the same period in 2021. He points to the social media videos as a primary reason for the crime increase.

Vehicles are mostly being stolen outside apartment complexes and in low-income communities, Moss says. The effects are devastating.

“We have an extra 600 people [a month] getting their car stolen – their lives are getting ruined,” Moss says in an interview. “They’re losing their jobs. They can’t take their kids to daycare. Anybody whose car gets stolen in one of these apartment complexes, that doesn’t make a lot of money – that can do a whole lot of damage to their livelihood. And I think that’s missed when we just talked about numbers.”

Criminals are flouting the law more aggressively, especially when approached by law enforcement, Moss says.

“A couple of years ago, no one would have even thought to ram a police car to get away,” Moss says. “It wasn’t even a thought, and now it’s just normal.”

How to spot, report a stolen vehicle

The Puget Sound Auto Theft Task Force regularly investigates tips from the public about suspicious vehicle activity. But not everyone may know what a stolen vehicle looks like or what characterizes suspicious behavior.

“The main thing is, know your area, know your community, and then when things look out of place, that’s when you take some kind of action,” Carroll said in an interview.

Carroll says to be suspicious of vehicles that:

  • Have no license plates

  • Have smashed windows

  • Have popped door handles

  • Are parked strangely or in weird places, like up against a dumpster

  • Aren’t normally in your neighborhood

Carroll says to keep one’s neighborhood safe, it’s important to talk to neighbors and know who you live around. If you notice someone who constantly has different vehicles coming and going, that could be a sign of something fishy.

Preventing auto theft

Tacoma police also have advice on how to keep your vehicle safe from thieves:

In February, Hyundai announced it’s offering free anti-theft software upgrades to many of its models. The software upgrade will install an “ignition kill” that immobilizes the engine, which fixes the security oversight that criminals are exploiting. Updates are available now for some models, with the rest are arriving in June.

In the meantime, the Puget Sound Task Force is distributing free steering wheel locks at more than a dozen police departments in Pierce and in King counties. People with certain Hyundai and Kia vehicle owners just need to bring their registration and key to claim one.

The following police departments have received locks:

  • Pierce County Sheriff’s Department — South Hill Precinct

  • Lakewood Police Department

  • Puyallup Police Department

  • Edgewood Police Department

  • Eatonville Police Department

  • University Place Police Department

  • Bonney Lake Police Department

  • Fife Police Department

  • Federal Way Police Department

  • Auburn Police Department

  • Des Moines Police Department

  • SeaTac Police Department

  • Tukwila Police Department (proof of residency required)


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