RICHMOND, Va. -- Police across the Commonwealth are seeing a spike in car thefts.
Officers from Virginia State Police, Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield and neighboring counties came together Tuesday morning to share their concerns, urging people to keep their keys on hand and their cars locked when away from their vehicle.
In the first three months of this year, auto thefts in Richmond were up 54% compared to the previous year.
"A big part of the summer spike, we believe is so folks can leave their air conditioning on, they leave their cars running, they think it’s just going to be a few minutes. They come back, and it’s gone," said Major Rick Edwards with Richmond Police.
According to Edwards, 442 cars have been stolen this year so far, compared to 738 total in 2021.
In Henrico, 266 car thefts have been reported this year so far, up from a total of 194 last year.
"This is the most auto thefts we’ve seen, over the last five years in Henrico County," said Henrico Police Chief Eric English.
In most cases, officers explained, stolen vehicles are used to commit other crimes like robberies, burglaries, and homicides.
At Tuesday's press conference, Chesterfield Police displayed a white Mercedes the department recovered.
In November of 2021, the car was stolen and then purposefully driven into a store, resulting in the theft of several firearms. An investigation into the incident is still ongoing.
“The car that was car jacked, this car, was actually stolen from someone who had stolen this car. This car was stolen twice," said Chesterfield County Chief Jeffery Katz.
Major Edwards said in many cases, drivers will leave firearms in their vehicles, something officers said is contributing to a rise in gun violence in the area.
"We had a citizen leave his car parked, unlocked with the windows down and running," Major Edwards said. "He went into a convenience market. Within seconds, the thief saw that car and stole it. Days later, that same car was used by four gunmen to drive to an apartment complex in south Richmond. All four of these men based on video evidence got out of the car, unloading their weapons, shooting dozens of times at a group of other individuals. You could imagine how you would feel if your car were to be used like that in a crime like that, of violence.”
Major Edwards said the best way to prevent car theft is to keep keys on hand, lock doors and turn the car off if it's not in use.
"About 99% of our cars when they’re recovered, everything’s intact, and the only thing that was used to steal the car was the car’s own key," Major Edwards said. "People think that if they leave the car running but they take the fob with them, that the car can’t be driven off and that’s just not true. Many cars, if it’s left running, hey can still drive it, now they’re not going to be able to restart it, but as long as they drive it, they have a free car until the gas runs out.”
According to Virginia State Police, 11,470 cars were stolen in 2021. Catalytic converters thefts are up 100%. Through VSP's Help Eliminate Auto Theft (H.E.A.T.) program, drivers can get their vehicle's VIN number etched into the glass of their vehicle for free.
VSP also encourages drivers to install an immobilizer or tracking system.
“I can only imagine walking out and seeing your vehicle gone. It’s an emergency situation for you, the driver of that vehicle. The fact that it’s happening in so many counties across the commonwealth is an emergency for us, law enforcement," said VSP Colonel Gary Settle.