Gov. Phil Murphy said federal funding will allow officers to spend less time chasing car theft leads and more time recovering stolen vehicles and arresting car thieves. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Governor's Office)
New Jersey officials announced Friday they will curb a spike in car thefts statewide by again allowing police to engage in pursuits of car thieves and by spending $10 million to expand the use of license plate recognition technology.
Law enforcement previously had only been allowed to pursue vehicles as a last resort to prevent imminent death or serious injury to the officer or someone else — a restriction the state Attorney General’s Office implemented in December in response to the danger and crashes that can result from police pursuits.
Critics have complained the change fueled the spike in car thefts, essentially giving offenders a free pass to steal cars and speed away without fear of getting caught.
State police data shows car thefts hit an all-time high in New Jersey last year, with car theft reports this year 37% higher than at the same time in 2021, according to acting Attorney General Matt Platkin. Last year there were 14,320 reports of stolen vehicles, a 22% increase over 2020 cases, according to Platkin’s office.
Platkin announced the change at a Friday morning news conference in Marlboro.
“We will permit pursuits based on the commission of several additional crimes — car theft and receiving a stolen vehicle — at least through the end of this year, when we will evaluate the impact of this change,” Platkin said. “These changes will give law enforcement the tools that they need to meet the moment and to protect our communities while also being mindful of the inherent risks that come to officer safety and to the public when officers do engage in police pursuits.”
The restriction on police pursuits was ordered by former Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in 2020 as part of a sweeping reform of the policies that govern when and how police can use force. Grewal’s policy allowed officers to pursue people suspected of 12 crimes, including murder, kidnapping, burglary, and escape. Car theft was not one of them.
More than 10% of police pursuits result in injuries or fatalities, according to Platkin’s office.
The changes come two months after Platkin’s office announced it would spend $125,000 in federal funds to add more detectives, prosecutors, and police departments to its auto theft task force to get auto thefts under control.
License plate recognition technology uses high-speed automated camera systems to capture and store images of license plates in a database that officers can access to find stolen cars, identify offenders and theft patterns, and deter would-be thieves. It’s often deployed in kidnapping and missing persons cases, when officers are trying to find cars in a hurry.
It’s also been used in cities in New Jersey for several years to thwart car thefts, Platkin noted. New Jersey will now expand their use into the state’s suburbs.
“Crime does not stop at the municipal boundaries of our cities,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday. “This investment can mean less officer hours spent chasing leads and more of them spent recovering stolen vehicles and getting car thieves off of our streets.”
Murphy and Platkin said the state will use federal American Rescue Plan funds to install more cameras on highways and in police cruisers and otherwise expand the use of license plate reader technology.
This is the second time in recent weeks Murphy has directed federal COVID relief funds to policing initiatives. Earlier this month, he announced he will spend $9 million to expand the ranks of the New Jersey State Police by launching a second class of troopers. That move drew concern from some residents who urged officials to invest the money elsewhere.
Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst with progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said she finds the new measures “tremendously disappointing.”
“Any kind of police access to surveillance technology and databases where they can then store that information shouldn’t done at all, or with great discretion, because we know we have a culture of policing in this state that has resulted in New Jersey having the number one black-white disparity in incarceration in the nation,” Ubel said.
Platkin vowed officials will “continue to honor the strong privacy protections that have been in place in the state for well over a decade.”
Reducing auto thefts should have a ripple effect and reduce other violent crimes, Platkin said.
“These stolen vehicles are not always, in fact often are not, isolated incidents. They’re increasingly linked to other serious crimes, in particular shootings,” Platkin said.
Gun crimes have risen enough in New Jersey that lawmakers recently began considering changes to bail reform, including by keeping more people charged with some gun crimes behind bars before trial.
Ubel urged Murphy to turn his sights on reforming police departments, instead of expanding their policing powers.
“Advocates have been pushing for real police reform for the past two years, and that legislation has been languishing and has yet to receive vocal public support from the governor,” she said.
On Friday, officials also repeated their frequent call for citizens to do their part in reducing auto thefts by making sure to lock their car doors and not store their key fobs inside their vehicles. Most car thefts occur in vehicles whose owners have left their key fobs inside, Platkin said.
“It turns out if you have a new vehicle, your car is really hard to steal – unless you leave the key fob in it, then it’s remarkably easy to steal,” Platkin said.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.