Stopping auto burglary, theft starts with funding that should be going to law enforcement

By Mario Diaz - Reporter

HOUSTON - The roads in Texas are busier than ever, which means more targets for car burglars and car thieves.

In February, Channel 2 Investigates showed viewers various videos of burglars in action and the parts of Houston they were targeting.

Following our report, Lt. Tommy Hansen from the Galveston County Sheriff's Office reached out. Hansen is the chair of the State's Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority.

Hansen says automobile theft or burglary is not on people’s immediate radar unless it hits close to home: "Property crimes are not important to somebody until they're the victim."

Hansen set up a meeting with other investigators from the area who fight auto theft. The various members of law enforcement say they're not getting the money they've been promised to fight this crime. By the way, it's money that comes from your pocket. In 1991, the legislature approved a $1 add-on to motor vehicle insurance policies as a way to fund a burglary and theft task force. There was one problem, as much of that money went elsewhere.

In 2011, the legislature passed House Bill 1541 making that add-on to your insurance bill $2.

However, Hansen says not much has changed as they collect close to $50 million a year from auto policies, only to receive "about $12.8 (million), so we're getting about a fourth."

The rest of the money ends up in the state's general fund. It's not being used for its intended purpose. Even with the lack of funding, the task force of early 220 officers recovered more than 11,000 stolen vehicles last year. Still, the crime stats aren't going down. According to Sgt. Tracy Hicks of HPD, "They're up 10% this year, they're up 10% next year, they're going to be up 10% the year after that and it's never going to stop."

We're all paying the price well beyond that extra $2 on an insurance policy, as Hansen made clear earlier this month during testimony in Austin: “Vehicle crimes cost Texans over a billion dollars a year and that is growing."

Kelley Smith, with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, says stricter laws can reduce the number of repeat offenders according to the task force. That is one area of improvement needed, and another is better technology.

"We do not have the funds to purchase the high tech equipment that they have to locate these stolen vehicles.”

When asked if the crooks are more equipped than the cops, Sgt. Smith simply said “correct" without hesitation.

Cutting-edge technology costs money. It is money the task force is not getting.

Channel 2 Investigates spoke with State Sen. Paul Bettencourt regarding the issue.

"Unfortunately, this is how these budgets work, where the streams get crossed," Bettencourt said.

Bettencourt is trying to redirect the streams with one of two bills proposed in this legislative session.

"If we are really preventing auto thefts, that's a good thing and that money needs to go to that task."

The key takeaway in this? The vast majority of drivers have no clue they have been paying for this initiative for nearly 30 years with only a fraction of the money actually going to the cause. Hicks says most are dumbfounded when he presents them with the facts.

"I've explained it to lots of people. I mean, friends, relatives, whatever, I've said, 'Hey, you know you're paying two bucks and it goes to, you know, people like my squad?'" Hicks said.

Hicks then tells them, "but did you know that only ... you know, 30 cents of that or 50 cents of that $2 is actually going to it. And they're, like, 'what?' They don't even know they were paying it."

They are.

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