State looks to curb vehicle theft with grants to police task forces

By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol news Illinois
[email protected]

SPRINGFIELD – Six interagency law enforcement task forces received grant funding this spring to combat car thefts through an initiative of Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias’ office.

Giannoulias was in Belleville Tuesday to promote the initiative and highlight a $2.5 million grant to the Metro East Auto Theft Task Force, which brings together law enforcement agencies from Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties.

“In 2022, a motor vehicle was stolen every single minute in the United States,” Giannoulias said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, in Illinois, we have not been immune to the effects of auto theft. In fact, right here in (the) Metro East, over 1,300 automobiles were stolen last year alone.”

The Metro East task force was relaunched in 2019 after its state funding was cut in 2014 in the lead-up to a two-year state budget impasse that led to drastic cuts across state government. The task force, based out of the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, has since received annual funding from the secretary of state’s office.

The grants were allocated by the Illinois Vehicle Hijacking and Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention and Insurance Verification Council. Lawmakers in Springfield created the group in 1991 under the authority of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. According to the council’s website, between 1991 and 2014, the annual number of motor vehicle thefts in Illinois dropped 70 percent from 75,214 to 22,854.

In March 2015, ex-Gov. Bruce Rauner issued an executive order freezing state grants for that fiscal year, which meant the council had no money to distribute.

Capt. Matt Jany of the Metro East task force said Tuesday when funding was cut, “everybody realized that there was actually a void and a need for this task force.”

In 2018, lawmakers gave the secretary of state authority over the council, and the General Assembly began allocating funding again in 2019.

In May 2022, lawmakers expanded the council’s scope to emphasize vehicular hijacking prevention, and the General Assembly allocated another $30 million to supplement the fund’s $21 million balance as part of a broader election-year budget package aimed at addressing crime. Otherwise, the funding for the council’s grants primarily comes from an annual $1 assessment on car insurance policies.

The Metro East task force, Giannoulias said, recovered 547 stolen vehicles valued at over $8 million between July 2022 and June 30.

“Grant funding provided by our office makes it possible for law enforcement officers to combine proven investigative techniques with specialized technology to solve and prevent future vehicular crimes,” he said.

He said the Metro East task force has two vehicles equipped with license plate reader cameras to help locate stolen vehicles, and it uses drones to locate suspects who have fled on foot or vehicles that have been dumped in remote locations. Officers also track stolen vehicles through electronic systems and GPS data within cars, he said.

“There is no single solution,” Giannoulias said. “But it is crucial to ensure that law enforcement officials in the Metro East have the funding and tools they need to combat these crimes.”

Other departments have received funding as well, including the Expressway Safety Enforcement Group, which received $10.2 million. It’s the first fiscal year in which funds for the enforcement group were approved through the council. A spokesperson for Giannoulias said the enforcement group was an initiative of the Illinois State Police.

In a March news release announcing the funding, ISP Director Brendan Kelly said the effort to patrol expressways “brings together the full force of patrol, investigations, license plate readers, air operations, and other assets.”

The Illinois Statewide Auto Theft Task Force received $3.4 million. That unit was established in 2019 and is based out of the south Chicago suburb of Thornton. The task force has a heavy Secretary of State Police presence, giving it statewide authority, according to Giannoulias’ spokesperson Henry Haupt.

That unit recovered 1,400 stolen vehicles valued at $33 million over the 12-month period ending in July, which marked an 84 percent increase from the previous year, according to Haupt. The task force’s work led to 426 auto theft-related criminal charges over the same period.

Another $1.8 million was allocated to the Tri-County Auto Theft Task Force, which is based in Joliet and focused mainly in Will, Kankakee and Grundy counties. It also covers Kendall County and recently expanded into Iroquois County. The unit was launched in the early 1990s but it also lost funding amid the budget impasse.

The Greater Peoria Auto Crimes Task Force received $2.1 million, a new allocation for the fiscal year according to Giannoulias’ office. It is run through the Peoria Police Department in partnership with the SOS Police, which gives the unit statewide jurisdiction.

An SOS spokesperson said Peoria previously had a unit called the State and Local Auto Theft Enforcement Task Force, but it lost funding amid the budget impasse.

The Chicago Major Auto Theft Investigations, run through the Chicago Police Department, received $1.5 million. Crime statistics from CPD show motor vehicle thefts in that city from January through mid-August are up 104 percent from one year ago. CPD has logged 19,062 motor vehicle thefts through Aug. 14, up from 9,346 over the same period in 2022.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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