PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Along with a record surge in gun violence and an uptick in homeless camps, Portland is fighting an uphill battle against property crimes, particularly car thefts. However, a lack of resources is preventing authorities from recovering stolen cars on a daily basis.
KOIN 6 News tagged along as Portland police officers went looking for stolen cars at a homeless camp off of NE Airport Way. People scattered as officers pulled into the camp. Officers then spread out and immediately started running VIN numbers.
The officers found cars and trucks tucked away in the woods on both sides of the hill, stolen from all over the metro area.
“We’ve had cars today from Portland, Vancouver, Hillsboro, and another place in Washington County as well,” PPB Officer Dan Romanowski said.
The sheer number of car thefts in Portland is staggering: 911 vehicles were stolen in the month of September alone. Some victims have had their vehicles stolen more than once.
“I’ve never seen this many stolen cars in Portland. I’ve been with Portland for 19 years and this is by far and away the most stolen car calls I deal with,” Romanowski explained.
Portland is even outpacing other larger West Coast cities when it comes to car thefts. From January to September of this year, more cars have been stolen in Portland (5,947) than in Seattle (4,259), San Diego (4,991), or San Francisco (4,353).
Behind those statistics are people like Leigh Schelman and Paul Dinapoli. Their Land Cruiser was stolen from outside their Southeast Portland home on the morning of Aug. 25. They found it two days later roughly a mile from their home.
“They left a bunch of stuff in there, including drugs, credit cards, and this lovely thing — a bump key,” Schelman said.
“It’s a key that’s been filed down so that it fits in a lot of different door locks and it perfectly fits in a very worn-out 30-year-old Toyota,” Dinapoli explained.
The couple called 911 after finding it but were told police were responding to a shooting and it would be a while before anyone could get to them. While they waited, Schelman and Dinapoli found a trail of their belongings that led them to a homeless camp at SE 19th Avenue and SE Division Street.
“We saw the stuff sticking out from underneath a tarp,” Schelman said.
Schelman and Dinapoli said police arrived about four hours later and stood guard while they collected their stolen items and SUV, but no one in the camp was arrested.
“How is it that our stolen property is right there and our license plate is in their car, that clearly ties them to grand theft auto, just by the value of the vehicle that was stolen, like they got a complete pass, nothing — no names, no questions, no arrests, nothing,” Dinapoli questioned.
Two other car theft victims shared their frustrations. Both said they found their cars stripped and abandoned near homeless camps but saw no arrests.
“That seems to be the consistent thing is people are recovering their cars in, around, or adjacent to these places and there’s ample evidence but there’s nothing that can be done about it,” Robyn Crummer-Olson, whose car was stolen three times, said.
Officer Romanowski said he also noticed a massive increase in stolen cars at homeless camps in the area he patrols, so he and other officers now check camps every other week for stolen vehicles. In the camp off Airport Way, officers found vehicles with broken windows, missing tires, and stripped of parts.
On the day KOIN 6 News visited a homeless camp with police, officers recovered 12 stolen vehicles.
“So when citizens are like ‘hey, somebody’s sitting in that car and you’re not arresting them’ and they tell us ‘oh hey my buddy gave me a ride in this and he’s gone,’ whether that story is true or not, we have to be able to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt to bring a case forward to the DA’s office,” Romanowski explained.
Romanowski said that while he’d like to do more to get justice for car theft victims, in most cases, officers can only recover the stolen vehicle.
“I’ve been a police officer for coming up on 23 years so I’m pretty skeptical of stories I hear until I get some proof but in those cases, I don’t have a level of proof to make an arrest,” he said. “Do I necessarily believe the story? No. But do I have any confidence that making an arrest would result in a case being issued by our DA’s office? Because they need a beyond-a-reasonable doubt and we’re not there.”
Romanowski said multiple agencies would need to get involved to address the homeless camp itself.
“It’s a drop in the bucket, to be honest with you, but it’s a step in the right direction given what we’re able to do with the resources we have right now,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t have any simple solution for this otherwise it wouldn’t be as rampant as it is right now.”