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How bad is the car theft problem in Rochester? We top a new list

A Kia, with its tail lights still on, inside a building surrounded by shattered glass at night
A Hyundai Kona.

That Rochester is in the midst of a car-theft crime wave is no secret.

But a new report from a nonpartisan think tank illustrates the severity of the problem in perhaps the starkest terms yet.

The Council on Criminal Justice examined crime data from 32 American cities — including Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington — and found that, through the first half of the year, Rochester saw the largest proportional increase in vehicle thefts of all of them by a huge margin.

No other city in the sample was even close.

Vehicle thefts in Rochester rose 355% between January and June, compared with the same time period in 2022, according to the report.

To put that in perspective, the city that saw the next highest spike in vehicle thefts was Cincinnati, which experienced an increase of 162% — less than half that of Rochester. Buffalo was third, with a rise of 135%. Nine cities in the sample saw a drop in vehicle thefts.

Officials here, like those elsewhere, have attributed much of the increase to the rash of thefts of Hyundais and Kias following a popular TikTok social media challenge that showed viewers how to hotwire some models of those makes with a USB cable and a screwdriver.

Thefts of those makes accounted for more than three-quarters of the 1,904 vehicles stolen in the city between January and June this year, according to the Rochester Police Department.

In April, Rochester joined a list of cities suing the automakers, accusing them of neglecting to install industry-standard anti-theft technology.

“This problem is out of control,” Mayor Malik Evans said in announcing the litigation.

The Council on Criminal Justice data was limited to cities for which the council could obtain data through online portals maintained by the municipalities. Authors of the report cautioned that that could mean there are other U.S. cities outside the sample where growth in vehicle thefts exceeded that of Rochester.

Also worth noting is that the data was presented in terms of proportional growth. The number of car thefts in many large cities on the list was much higher than Rochester.

Still, the rate at which vehicles were stolen in Rochester in the first six months of the year was remarkable by any measure.

Nationally, the rate of vehicle thefts grew about a third — 33.5%. The growth in Rochester outpaced the nation more than tenfold.

Rochester City Council Vice President Mary Lupien called the figures “shocking.”

“I think all of us can, anecdotally, say, ‘This is bad,’” she said. “But to see it in comparison to what’s going on in the rest of the country really makes me question if we’re doing all that we can, and what are other places doing that we’re not.”

She pointed to a notable data point in the report that highlighted St. Paul, Minnesota, where vehicle thefts fell 41%. Two years ago, Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul, launched a “Youth Auto Theft Intervention Project” aimed at curbing a spike in carjackings.

The project used a method that officials there called “focused deterrence,” which included targeting teenagers who had been involved in car thefts and connecting them and their families with resources and services meant to help them stabilize their lives.

Lupien said those types of interventions can be invaluable, and said she intended to contact officials in St. Paul to learn what she could about the program.

Ernesto Lopez, a researcher at the council who co-authored the report, said the data suggested the explosive growth of vehicle thefts in Rochester was new. He characterized the growth here in the years leading up to 2023 as unexceptional.

“It’s really those first few months and even all the way until we finished collecting the data in June of this year when there is a major spike in Rochester,” Lopez said. “So whatever is occurring in Rochester is recent.”

The council called car thefts a “keystone crime” — one that facilitates other crimes.

Rochester police have signaled the same concern, noting earlier this year that stolen Hyundais and Kias were used in a string of “smash-and-grab” burglaries, in which cars were driven through the door or storefront of a business that their drivers and passengers looted.

In response to the report, Mayor Malik Evans said the city has employed multiple strategies to address vehicle thefts beyond suing car manufacturers. He said they included targeted police details, partnering with other law enforcement agencies, and introducing activities designed to keep young people busy and productive.

“This remains a top priority,” the mayor said, “as safety and security is foundational to creating an equitable Rochester that delivers hope and opportunity for everyone.”

David Andreatta is investigations editor. He joined the WXXI family in 2019 after 11 years with the Democrat and Chronicle, where he was a news columnist and investigative reporter known for covering a range of topics, from the deadly serious to the cheeky.