Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Half of Milwaukee’s Car Thefts By Children

The 'Kia Boyz' have helped drive 'astronomical' 58% increase in city's car thefts, nearly half by kids 16 and under.

By - Dec 6th, 2021 05:08 pm
A Kia parked on a City of Milwaukee street. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A Kia parked on a City of Milwaukee street. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The majority of vehicles stolen in Milwaukee are made by Kia and Hyundai and stolen by individuals under the age of 18.

The problem has steadily grown over the past year and the latest data paints a stark picture.

The city has already set a modern record for vehicle thefts and the year isn’t over. A total of 9,611 thefts have been recorded through Nov. 30, eclipsing a full-year record of approximately 8,500 in 2006.

The Milwaukee Police Department says it is changing its practices to better respond, while Common Council members are demanding answers on what happens after suspects are arrested.

MPD reported in July that 66% of thefts in 2021 were vehicles manufactured by Kia or Hyundai. Through the end of November, one year after the manufacturer-specific surge was first noticed, that percentage ticked upward to 67%.

But for the first time, the department released detailed age data on those arrested for the offense.

Of 1,061 arrests for motor vehicle theft or operating without the owner’s consent, 48.8% involved suspects aged 16 and younger. A full 81.5% of arrests have been individuals 25 or younger. Only 5.6% of arrests were of people older than 35.

Thefts peaked in August and have receded to late spring levels in recent months. Year-over-year arrests surged 66% in January and have risen overall by 58% in the first 11 months of 2021.

“To an extent, we are catching up a little bit with the ongoing motor vehicle theft issues we are having,” said MPD chief of staff Nick DeSiato in presenting the latest data to the Judiciary & Legislation Committee on Monday afternoon. But he said the size of the theft problem was “astronomical.” Most of the thefts go unsolved, with a damaged vehicle found abandoned sometimes even before the owner has noticed it went missing.

When he initially presented numbers in July he shied away from suggesting it was teenagers causing the surge. “I think it skews older than people would think,” he said. Wrong, it turns out.

“Obviously it skews to a younger crowd,” said DeSiato. That’s confirmed by social media where videos of teenagers swerving and leaning out of vehicles have gone viral, repeatedly.

“I think there is a coolness factor to it too,” said DeSiato. “I was just watching a song [on YouTube] today and they were bragging about this.”

Those stealing and recklessly driving are informally called the “Kia Boyz” by multiple social media accounts that have glamorized the act. But no evidence suggests it’s a concentrated group of individuals.

Theft of a Kia or or Hyundai takes less than two minutes according to DeSiato (and at least one video).

Rear windows in the vehicles can be broken as they are not connected to the alarm system. More sophisticated techniques involve prying out the window. Once inside the vehicle, a panel can be removed and the vehicles started by using a USB cable or similarly-shaped object to turn over the ignition. Other thieves have used pliers.

The thefts involve vehicles without an immobilizer in a chipped key (an immobilizer is found in push button ignition setups common in new vehicles). Most of these companies’ vehicles made in the past decade lack such a feature.

But what happens to those suspects who are caught?

DeSiato said MPD doesn’t keep data on the disposition of its cases for the two crimes (of car theft and driving without the owner’s consent).

Alderman Scott Spiker pushed for more data on what happens after an arrest and using that data to inform policing practices.

“I think it’s worth exploring the repeat offenders,” said DeSiato.

He admitted the three-pronged approach to combatting reckless driving — engineering, education and enforcement — was failing. “Clearly that E, enforcement, is not an effective strategy,” he said.

“Who has the answers?” asked Ald. Robert Bauman of post-arrest results. He said the council is left to rely on anecdotes from police officers and they suggest it’s a revolving-door of repeated crimes.

“If the facts are contrary to that, I think it’s very important to get the facts,” he said.

Ald. Michael Murphy, who chaired the reckless driving task force, said he has seen data that very few cases are being prosecuted. He said he would work to bring children’s court judge Laura Crivello before the committee and the district attorney’s office.

DeSiato, without identifying the person, said there was someone he expected to present with him that could answer those questions who was called to an on-site issue just before the meeting.

Ald. Khalif Rainey asked about the city’s direct cost from damage to its infrastructure and time spent investigating.

“I’m guessing it’s a pretty astronomical number, but it’s not a number we specifically track,” said DeSiato.

MPD is committing more resources to enforcement now, creating an auto theft task force.

“We are committing and combining resources from multiple areas,” said DeSiato. “Which is not to say we haven’t been committed on stopping auto thefts. We are just breaking down silos.”

The department is also hiring civilian public safety officers to work on clearing cases, working with the Fire & Police Commission to update a standard operating procedure on investigations so that investigations for thefts and operating without consent cases can be combined and streamlining the process for latent fingerprint collection.

Earlier this year, the manufacturers committed to providing steering wheel locks and DeSiato said they have honored that request. Anyone operating a Kia or Hyundai without an immobilizer key can visit a MPD station to pick up a free lock.

A class action lawsuit is pending in Milwaukee County Circuit Court against the manufacturers.

Deputy city attorney Yolanda McGowan said the city might pursue a different tack. “Our opinion on this is our theory of defense is a public nuisance one,” said McGowan. Murphy requested a written opinion and the committee agreed to defer further discussion on legal strategy for closed session.

The problem, on a national level, is currently limited to Milwaukee and Denver, according to a Legislative Reference Bureau memo.

“I’m sure as word gets out it will continue with other cities,” said DeSiato.

Word hasn’t made it 90 miles south yet.

Chicago, with a population 4.5 times that of Milwaukee, currently has fewer vehicle thefts.

One thought on “City Hall: Half of Milwaukee’s Car Thefts By Children”

  1. Mingus says:

    Still no one has answered the question about what is happening to these children. A thirteen year old driving a stolen car is dangerous. We need some answers. The parents of these children need to be brought in and questioned as to why their children are out at all hours stealing cars.

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