San Francisco Police Wheel Out Bait Cars, But Do They Reduce Vehicle Thefts?
A 2023 headline in the San Francisco Standard asked, “Why is San Francisco Called Bip City?” Reminiscent of Portland, Oregon’s “Rip City” NBA basketball moniker, “Bip City” stems from the slang term “bipping,” which refers to breaking into cars. So common are auto burglaries and smash-and-grabs in San Francisco that those crimes have become synonymous with the city. Police are optimistic, however, that bait cars will help combat the problem. But only time will tell if San Francisco’s bait cars will be effective. Research results are mixed, at best.
In August, the San Francisco Police Department announced that they would use bait cars to combat the city’s ongoing problem of car break-ins. This move comes after years of frustration and more than 15,000 break-ins so far in 2023. What is perhaps more discouraging is that not only is the number of car break-ins and auto thefts high, but approximately 80 percent of San Francisco’s auto burglaries go unsolved. The San Francisco Chronicle has an interactive car break-in tracker, and recent newspaper stories suggest that victims of car theft regularly check online parking ticket logs to help recover their vehicles since the SFPD has such a dismal record of solving auto thefts.
The “bait” are cars intentionally left by police with the aim of luring car thieves so they can be caught in the act. While details on San Francisco’s bait cars are slim, similar vehicles are usually outfitted with GPS tracking technology and frequently have a remote kill switch or the ability to lock the suspect in the car. Items such as backpacks, boxes, or laptops can be stored in the car with their own GPS devices to catch would-be smash-and-grab suspects. After about a month in operation, San Francisco’s bait program resulted in its first arrest in October.
Are bait cars effective?
With so many break-ins daily, is the first arrest a sign that the tide is turning? The effectiveness of bait car operations in reducing auto theft remains a subject of debate. There is little scholarly literature on the topic. Among the relatively few publications is a white paper by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which noted, “Although some successful uses of decoy vehicles have been reported in the United Kingdom, their effects on car theft reduction have been only temporary. ... Reports of U.S. sting programs using bait cars suggest similar results.”
While there may be limited comprehensive studies assessing the long-term impact of bait car programs on car theft rates, some police departments have reported anecdotal success stories, claiming that car thefts have declined in their jurisdictions after implementing bait car operations. A notable example is Minneapolis’s bait vehicle program, which has been in effect since 1998. In the first twelve years of the program, auto theft declined by 68 percent. However, vehicle thefts have spiked in the city since 2019. Interestingly, the rate of auto theft in nearby St. Paul has declined by 41 percent in the first six months of 2023. St. Paul has a dedicated auto theft team of eight deputies, whereas Minneapolis only has one full-time officer assigned to auto theft. Both cities employ various forms of tracking bait cars.
A study by Jason Potts from the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing did an analysis of vehicle theft deterrent strategies between 2016–2017 in Vallejo, California, near San Francisco. Potts found that when combined together, several deterrent strategies, including increasing officer presence, crime prevention outreach, etc., were associated with a 40 percent decrease in annual auto thefts, though it is not clear what percentage of that decline can be attributed to the bait program specifically. Despite the high upfront costs of the deterrence program, Potts purports that the program was cost-effective in terms of reducing the lost value in car thefts. Since Potts’s study, as a raw number, auto burglaries in Vallejo between 2017–2019 increased before declining through 2020–2021. In Sacramento, California, vehicle thefts were seemingly unaffected by the city’s bait car program.
Despite some promising anecdotes, a concrete body of evidence establishing the correlation between bait cars and reduced car thefts remains elusive, requiring further research in the ongoing battle against auto-related crimes.
Are bait cars entrapment?
There is a popular misconception that bait cars are a form of entrapment, which, if true, would absolve the defendant in a car theft case of criminal wrongdoing. Bait cars used by the police, however, would not generally count as entrapment for several reasons.
Entrapment hinges on the notion that law enforcement induces or persuades individuals to commit a crime they would not have otherwise committed. It is worth mentioning that each state has its own statutes and case law on entrapment. There is, however, not much variance across jurisdictions that would be especially relevant to bait cars.
Inducement, which is relatively less important than “criminal predisposition” in an entrapment defense, is a high bar by itself. As the U.S. Department of Justice stresses, not even “solicitation to commit a crime is inducement. ... Nor does the government’s use of artifice, stratagem, pretense, or deceit establish inducement.”
With bait cars, there is no inducement. Instead, these vehicles offer an opportunity for potential thieves to act on pre-existing criminal intentions. Law enforcement does not employ coercion, intimidation, or persuasion to prompt criminal activity.
Supposing the defense could successfully argue that the government applied persuasion or coercion, the argument would still ultimately fail if it could not show that the defendant had no criminal disposition. Both elements of inducement and lack of predisposition need to be present. Bait cars are simply unattended vehicles placed in vulnerable locations, attracting individuals who were already inclined to commit car theft. Those caught by bait cars are willing participants who willingly engage in criminal acts.
Moreover, legal precedents have generally supported the use of bait cars as a legitimate law enforcement tool, recognizing them as a means to identify and apprehend criminals rather than creating crimes where none existed. In People v. Watson, 2000, the Supreme Court of California held, “Official conduct that does no more than offer that opportunity to the suspect—for example, a decoy program—is therefore permissible.”
In People v. Garcia, 2014, the California Court of Appeals, Second District, echoed the Watson precedent and rejected the contention that jurors should be instructed on entrapment in a bait vehicle case.
Implementing a successful bait car initiative involves several key best practices, as outlined in one of the first white papers on bait cars used in Great Britain. First, it is crucial to adopt a focused and targeted approach, with local-level analysis providing insights into the specific vehicle crimes in the area, including the types of vehicles thieves target and the hot spot locations. These operations are especially suited for vehicles at high risk of professional theft, as they are often less common on the road, making them more attractive to criminals with limited choices. Second, regularly monitoring crime levels throughout the initiative is essential, as the risk to specific vehicles or locations may evolve over time, necessitating adjustments in tactics.
Third, regular evaluation of the operation should be integrated into standard management practices, enabling an assessment of its effectiveness in terms of both crime reduction and cost-effectiveness. This evaluation not only aids in managing an overall vehicle crime reduction strategy but also serves as a basis for sharing successful practices with other law enforcement agencies, underlining the importance of maintaining comprehensive records of each operation, including its purpose, crime trends over time, and the allocated resources. These records should be shared with officials and the public to enhance transparency and accountability.
The introduction of bait cars in San Francisco offers a relatively novel response to the city’s chronic car break-in problem. While the initial deployment has led to its first arrest, the long-term effectiveness of bait cars in reducing vehicle thefts remains uncertain, and only time will reveal its true impact. Continuous monitoring, routine evaluations, and public disclosure are crucial for assessing the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of the bait-car program, adding to a strategy for reducing vehicle-related crimes.
The author would like to thank Lawrence McQuillan for his comments on an earlier draft.