LARGO (FOX 13) - An auto theft task force created five weeks ago is credited with reversing an alarming increase in auto burglaries and car thefts.
"Over the past 30 days, we experienced something close to a 32-percent decrease in auto thefts and auto burglaries," Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward told a news conference Friday afternoon.
That statistic compares to a 47-percent increase in car thefts from January through June in Tampa, a 23-percent increase in St. Petersburg, and a 31-percent increase in territory served by the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.
"It's all being committed by these people," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri declared, pointing to a posterboard filled with the mug shots of 64 young offenders.
Most of them hail from south St. Petersburg, but the law enforcers said they roam the Bay Area in stolen cars, frequently committing other crimes.
"In one of the incidents, we had recently a group came from St. Pete over to Tampa, and in one night they committed three robberies," Chief Ward said.
The sheriff said they also like to play cat-and-mouse.
"Doing car burglaries and stealing cars and joy riding and getting chased by the police has become the flavor of the day," Gualtieri continued. "As they run, they run red lights...and they are engaging in dangerous and deadly conduct."
Each agency provided 12 officers to the task force, and the sheriff's office and Tampa police provided helicopters. Seven days a week, intelligence was exchanged.
"At 11 o'clock every morning, we would share information on what cars are being stolen, who's being arrested," St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway said.
Lists of stolen cars with images were quickly generated for detectives in unmarked cars.
"They literally hit the streets with these hot sheets looking for these cars," Gualtieri said.
But once spotted, a helicopter would be summoned.
"We could back off, wait for the chopper to spot the vehicle, set a perimeter, and then get these guys and gals as they are coming out of the car," Holloway explained.
All of this effort was Plan B, after Plan A did not work.
"We tried the education process, which is alerting all of our citizens along that corridor to just simply lock their cars, take their keys out of the cars. That failed, so we had to change gears," Ward said.
Sheriff Gualtieri repeated the message all three agencies have issued the past several months: Most of the thievery could be prevented.
"We have taken 1,576 reports of car burglaries," Gualtieri added. "Eighty-six percent were unlocked cars."