For much of the past year, Titan Crawford, 38, has led a growing network of volunteers that scours Portland’s streets, alleys, and forests, in hopes of finding stolen vehicles before they end up shredded for parts, reports the New York Times. Vehicle thefts in Portland are on track to reach well over 10,000 this year, more than triple the number the city recorded a decade ago, part of a nationwide trend that accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. The brazenness of the crimes, inattention from the police, and desperation of residents who find themselves missing one of their most valuable possessions have led many to take matters into their own hands. “It would be cool if the city could do this and I didn’t have to,” Crawford said. Similar groups have popped up and grown around the U.S. as vehicle thefts have soared. Crawford’s network is less about vigilante justice — his group's rules say that people who take the law into their own hands will not be tolerated — and more about community building and expanding eyes and ears around town. Rewards aren’t allowed. The group wants people motivated by a desire to help, rather than focusing on finding cars that might earn money. Neighbors share pictures of license plates, keep watch during commutes to work, and hunt online for reports of stolen vehicles. Nearly every day, the group, PDX Stolen Cars, helps a resident reconnect with a vehicle in Portland or its suburbs.
The nation is on track to record about 1.1 million stolen vehicles this year, the highest number in more than a decade, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The trend appears to be connected in part to the pandemic, as disruptions in the supply chain have created a surge in the value of catalytic converters and other car parts and have made vehicles a target for theft, said David Glawe, the bureau's chief executive. The Portland Police Bureau said staffing challenges had prevented them from doing more to help solve car thefts, as the department struggled to retain and recruit officers. Sgt. Kevin Allen said the police bureau often had to prioritize other crimes but did not ignore vehicle thefts. One precinct has undertaken occasional special missions to target and recover stolen vehicles. Older vehicles, which often lack alarms or modern security systems that prevent hot-wiring, remain among the most popular to steal. Newer vehicles can also be stolen when people leave their key fobs inside the car or thanks to videos that show people how to steal some vehicles with little more than a USB charging cable. Thefts of cars are harmful to people with limited incomes, or to those who do not carry comprehensive insurance. A theft or a stolen catalytic converter can mean being left without a vehicle, or with a bill they cannot afford.