Cops campaign to curb stolen ‘steamers’

Who’d leave their vehicle running in the parking lot while they grab some coffee? Far too many average folks, cops say. Learn what they’re doing about this growing problem …

Sgt. John Scruggs gives a stack of anti-car-theft flyers to Aaron Linn at the Dominos Pizza shop on the 3600 block of NE 82 Avenue of Roses.

Story and photo by David F. Ashton
So many drivers in outer East Portland leave their vehicles empty – and running – that crooks have a coined a name for these ready-to-steal cars.

“A ‘steamer’ is the street term for an unattended, running vehicle,” says Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Crime Reduction Unit Sgt. John Scruggs. “They call it that because in the colder winter months, steam comes out of the vehicle’s exhaust system.”

We’re riding along with Scruggs in his patrol car, as he gets ready for the next leg of his unit’s crime-reduction campaign on April 6. He, and other officers, are focusing on convenience stores and coffee shops, where people tend to leave their vehicles running while they make a “quick” pit-stop.

Curbing climbing car-theft rate
“Over the last year, East Precinct has seen a 41% increase in auto theft,” Scruggs reports. “Our precinct commander, Michael Crebs, assigned several patrol officers whose primary responsibility is to target the areas most affected by auto theft. Today, we’re distributing educational flyers. They’re part of our effort to help keep citizens from becoming crime victims.”

When we stop at stores, whether national-chain convenience stores or mom-and pops, we’re a little surprised to see Scruggs get a warm reception. “It hurts us when one of our customer’s cars are stolen here,” says the shopkeeper at an 82nd Avenue of Roses store.

Sgt. Scruggs adds, “We’re trying to convey to people that leaving your car running – whether in your own driveway, or at the store – is a bad idea. There are people who are looking for steamers every day. You’ll never see the person around the corner of the 7-11 stores waiting to steal your running car; you’ll only see your car as it drives away.”

CRU Officer Jake Jensen shows a copy of the flyers, sporting the “Take your Keys” message which officers hope drivers will heed.

Crooks steal cars for crime – and court

We return to East Precinct and talk with other CRU members who have returned from their information-distribution missions.

“Several cars are stolen every day in East Precinct,” comments CRU Officer Robert Brown. Many times, the thieves will commit more crimes using the stolen cars. Sometimes criminals will even steal a car to go to court – to appear on a stolen-car charge.”

Expensive judgment error
When a car is stolen, Brown says the first step is that the police will take a report about it. “Typically, your car will be found.”

But, the driver will pay dearly for the convenience of leaving their vehicle running, Brown continues. “You’ll have to pay for towing and storage. A lot of these joy-riding thieves drive them hard. They run them over curbs – they don’t care about your car. You’ll find things broken. They’ll do hundreds dollars worth of damage to your car. It is an expensive proposition.”

The officer says a stolen car may end up in a “chop shop”: Many late model Hondas or Toyotas are stripped for parts, like seats or automatic air bag systems. “In this case, you’ll be paying to get back a stripped, useless vehicle.”

The ounce of prevention …
A driver doesn’t need to install expensive, exotic security systems to prevent this kind of theft, Brown concludes. “All it takes is just to shut it off, and take your keys!”

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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