Our KSBY investigation into the soaring number of auto thefts in Santa Maria began after a July news conference at the Santa Maria Police Department. That's when Police Chief Ralph Martin announced an 83 percent increase in auto thefts over the past year, at a time when numbers for several violent crimes in the city had dropped.
We wanted to know more about when and where cars were being stolen in Santa Maria and what models were most popular with thieves. We also wondered how Santa Maria's auto theft rate compared with other cities on the Central Coast.
Our first step was to make a California Public Records Act request to the SMPD for a list of all auto thefts reported in 2012, 2013 and year-to-date in 2014.
After we received the data on an Excel spreadsheet, we used two tools, one high tech and one low tech, to help visualize the January-August 2014 numbers.
First, we created a Google interactive crime map
to show where the 2014 crimes were happening in the city. (The map also allows anyone viewing it on the KSBY website to click individual icons and see the type of car stolen and when and where it disappeared and was recovered. It also shows if keys were left in the ignition when it was stolen.)
We heard about this storytelling tool
from Google's Geo Media Program Manager Vanessa Schneider and Media Outreach Manager Nicholas Whitaker at a journalism training conference several months ago in San Francisco. (The Poynter Institute's News University also featured Schneider's presentation on geo mapping at a webinar in October.)
Next, we marked a 2014 calendar with a red dot for each car reported stolen. July immediately stood out: Nearly 120 thefts reported, so many we could barely fit all the dots on some days.
We also contacted 10 other police agencies on the Central Coast and obtained 2013 auto theft stats for their communities. KSBY art director Jana Bustos created a pie chart showing the startlingly large numbers of theft in Santa Maria compared with the 10 other jurisdictions.
When we examined national and state reports on this crime, we found a downward trend -- the opposite of Santa Maria. (We also learned that nine of the top 10 cities in the country for auto theft are in California. Bakersfield was number one, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau's annual report.)
As part of our investigation, we spoke with law enforcement officers in Santa Maria and the 10 other cities on the Central Coast. Several told us it was not unusual to find cars dumped in their cities after having been stolen in Santa Maria.
During our investigation, we interviewed a Santa Maria man charged with auto theft and got his advice on how to thwart car thieves. Representatives of the National Insurance Crime Bureau also provided crime prevention tips. Their suggestions were similar: Lock your cars, don't leave keys in the ignition and invest in a security device such as The Club or an alarm system.
KSBY photographer Jason Orr and I spent several hours on patrol with Santa Maria Police Officer Alex George, who has made it his mission to find stolen cars and reunite them with their owners. It was rewarding to be there to watch him return two stolen cars to their grateful owners. (He's also Santa Maria's Officer of the Year for finding 70 cars and arresting more than a dozen suspects last year.)
As part of our investigation, we obtained charging data from Mag Nicola and Brooke Gerard in the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office that shed further light on the auto theft crime trend.
When our investigation was done, the answer to one key question still eluded us: Why is Santa Maria such a hot spot for auto thefts? We heard plenty of theories but nothing backed up with verifiable evidence.
Everyone we interviewed, however, agreed on one thing: Basic prevention is the key to protecting your car against thieves.
Santa Maria police soon are expected to announce plans to step up their battle against car thefts. Google auto theft map Santa Maria Crime Statistics Google mapping overview