After declining through much of the 1990s and early 2000s, automobile crimes such as car thefts and burglaries are on the rise all over Texas.
At the same time, regional task forces formed to combat auto crimes are limping along, hamstrung by underfunding, despite the fact that insurance consumers in Texas all are paying a surcharge originally intended to fund auto crimes task forces.
In Galveston County, vehicle theft was up more than 15 percent in 2017, compared with the year before, and up almost 44 percent compared with 2012, according to the county’s auto crimes task force.
Vehicular burglary reports were down a fraction in 2017, compared with 2016 — 2,074 instead of 2,078 — but up more than 10 percent over 2012.
Law enforcement officers know what the problems are. One is that organized criminal gangs such as the violent MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, have decided the county is a good place to go stealing, according to the task force. Houston is among MS-13’s main bases, according to The Texas Department of Public Safety.
It’s no surprise that organized gangs are interested in auto crimes; it’s an industry.
“Auto crimes are a $1 billion per year business,” Lt. Tommy Hansen of the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office recently told a Daily News reporter.
“And that number is relatively conservative — it doesn’t even include potential damage to a car.”
The other problem in that funding for task forces is being siphoned off into the insatiable maw of the state’s general fund.
The fate of the surcharge is almost as big a crime as automobile theft and burglary.
Lawmakers in 1991 tagged a $1 surcharge onto the bills of people paying for automobile insurance with the stated purpose of funding auto crimes task forces across the state.
It was a reasonable enough governmental action. Everybody owning a car kicks in a few dollars to help improve the odds that stolen cars get found and car thieves get prosecuted.
That actually happened for a while, but it didn’t last long. In 1997, lawmakers slashed task force funding to 25 cents of each $1 and sent 75 cents to the general fund.
The legislature in 2011 made things worse.
At that time, officers from auto crimes task forces across Texas trekked to Austin to ask whether the state couldn’t give them some more of the money being collected from Texans for the stated purpose of funding auto crimes task forces.
The answer was “no.”
What lawmakers did was double the surcharge to $2 and promise to give task forces the added $1, plus the quarter they already were getting.
It was a brilliant move. The cops would be happy, take their $1.25 and go home, the general fund would keep its 75 cents and nobody would be the wiser.
The trouble is, the state didn’t keep its promise, instead it kept the new dollars.
We worry a lot about violent crimes these days, and there are good reasons for that, but we’re far more likely to become victims of property crimes, which is good in a cold-comfort sort of way.
While a converse situation would be worse, it’s still bad to become a victim of property crime. As Hansen pointed out, the direct loss from vehicle burglary often is less than the cost of repairing the car and the cost of the time lost having to deal with it all. Some people leave their cars unlocked for that very reason.
It would be accurate to say that every Texan who pays an auto insurance premium is a victim of an auto crime. Those who find an oily spot where their car had been, or a shattered window and a ransacked car, have been victimized twice.
• Michael A. Smith