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Why are car thefts skyrocketing across Washington? Police point to multiple factors

The total number of car thefts across the state has nearly doubled compared to the first few months of 2021.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Having your car stolen in Bellingham used to be a rarity. If it did happen, police could track down the usual suspects.

Not anymore.

"We have so many people stealing cars now it's very difficult to pin down who it is," said Bellingham Police Lt. Claudia Murphy.

There have been 176 cars stolen in Bellingham in just the first 79 days of 2022. That's more than two a day, unheard of for the city of fewer than 100,000 people.

"It's unbelievable," said Murphy. "It's truly unbelievable."

In the first two months of last year, there were 4,552 vehicle thefts statewide. For the same two months of this year, that number has nearly doubled to 8,320.

"I believe this is the first time we have ever topped 4,000 stolen vehicles per month," said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

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Police told KING 5 those stolen cars often are used to commit even more crimes.

There are many reasons attributed to the rising theft numbers, including COVID-19 restrictions at local jails that limit the number of people who can be held.

Strachan also pointed to a Washington Supreme Court decision that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs, and law enforcement reform laws that forbid police from pursuing someone in a stolen car unless that person is drunk or otherwise dangerous. Strachan said the numbers started jumping right after that law was passed.

"I've never seen such brazen contempt for law enforcement," said Strachan. "I think it's some of the best evidence I've seen that the change in the law has directly affected numbers of auto thefts."

All those stolen cars have a ripple effect throughout the community.

"It is the way on which people rely to get their kids to school or other activities, or to get to work and back," said Murphy. "It's really more than an inconvenience to most families to have their vehicle stolen."

Bellingham is on track to top 700 vehicle thefts this year, nearly double the high of 368 in 2021, but Murphy said police are still arresting people and sending them to jail, 13 so far this year.

"We're still out here, and we will catch you one way or the other," said Murphy.