Given all this, Frise says that companies that sell loud car alarms almost certainly know that their products are ineffective. “If nobody bought them,” he said, “they’d stop making them. It’s the old supply-and-demand thing.”
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For a time, the Canadian city of Winnipeg had the highest rate of auto thefts per capita in North America—higher than those of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Between 2003 and 2008, vehicle thefts cost Winnipeg $40 million a year, and auto thieves, who were typically reckless, were a serious danger to residents. “Everybody in the city had either had their car stolen or knew someone who’d had their car stolen,” said Rick Linden, a University of Manitoba sociology professor.
Car theft was deeply embedded in Winnipeg’s teen culture. Peers pressured each other to steal cars, usually for joyriding. Thieves were quite young, stealing their first cars, on average, at age 13. There were even reports of 10-year-olds stealing cars with screwdrivers. “Auto theft is an activity for them,” one government informant explained in a report funded by Canada’s National Crime Prevention Centre. “Somehow it got started, and now it’s just what they do. In one neighborhood, they play pickup hockey. In this neighborhood, they steal cars.”
According to Linden, some families had three generations of auto thieves, and the problem was especially acute among young men from indigenous families. “They are by far the most disadvantaged residents of our city,” explained Linden.
The police started addressing the auto-theft problem in 2001, but nothing they did seemed to work. In 2005, a group of sociologists, led by Linden, stepped in with a set of recommendations and advised the city as it wrote up a plan called the Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy.
The plan addressed auto theft with several different techniques. First, the city required the owners of at-risk vehicles to get immobilization systems, which insurance companies paid for. These were more expensive than standard car alarms, but much less expensive than reimbursing customers for stolen vehicles. Second, the plan initiated the monitoring of what it called “high-rate offenders”—probation officers were to do what they could to keep repeat offenders in check, sometimes calling them as often as every few hours. The last piece of the puzzle was youth programming. The task force worked with organizations such as Big Brothers to develop counseling and substance-abuse programs.
It worked. Auto thefts in Winnipeg dropped by 84 percent over five years, according to a National Crime Prevention Centre report, and the city started saving $30 million per year. The program paid for itself; as of 2010, the government had invested $52 million in the programs and saved $90 million.
While the incessant phone calls were probably pretty irritating for those teens, Linden found that high-rate offenders committed fewer crimes when they were monitored. Linden estimates this tactic was responsible for about 40 to 45 percent of the decrease in thefts. Immobilizers were estimated to be responsible for another 40 to 45 percent, and youth programs helped a little bit, but Linden and his fellow researchers concluded that the offenders needed longer-term programs to stay out of trouble.