Evidence That Auto Theft Will Decline In 2024
Starting out 2024 with a maybe positive trend.
Crime likely fell nationally in 2023, but auto theft most certainly did not. Auto thefts have surged nationally since mid-2022 when a video posted to social media showed people how easy it is to steal certain Kia and Hyundai models. The result was a large increase in auto thefts in 2022 and an apparent large increase in 2023 based on the FBI’s quarterly data.
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What is interesting about the quarterly data is that the increase in auto thefts was largely a big city and suburbs (metropolitan counties) issue. Auto thefts were either down or around even in smaller cities (under 250,000) and rural (nonmetropolitan) counties.
Looking at a handful of cities that publish incident-level data, therefore, can be a decent barometer of where this trend is heading in 2024. For that I grabbed data from Washington, DC, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Memphis, and Detroit.
Each of these cities had a large increase in auto thefts undoubtedly driven by the theft of Kias and Hyundais. Interestingly (hello fascinating dissertation topic!) the surges did not all come at the same time suggesting the trick was known in Milwaukee prior to its publication on social media. This is helpful as Milwaukee may provide a glimpse into the future of the auto theft trend in each of these cities.
Charting auto thefts in these cities shows that auto thefts in each city peaked and started to come down in 2023 though the timing of the peak varies from city to city. This is important because, as the above table shows, auto thefts in big cities (250,000 and up) is driving the national trend. A decline in those cities should — in theory — drive a national decline.
Below is the graph of auto theft incidents in each city rolling over 3 months to better identify when the peak in each city came. These trends don’t mean the decline will be linear, or even that a decline is assured in each of these cities over the long term, but they do strongly suggest that auto thefts have peaked in these cities.
The chart is a bit busy, but a few things pop out to me. First, each city experienced a large increase in auto thefts with the surge starting earlier in Milwaukee suggesting the TikTok trick was known there prior to its national spread. Second, each city appears to have peaked sometime over the last 12 months in every city but Milwaukee (which peaked in 2021).
Finally, while auto thefts may have peaked they are still elevated — even in Milwaukee — compared to the pre-surge trend. There were 1,588 auto theft incidents in Milwaukee between June and August 2023 which is half of the 3,155 such incidents during the same months in 2021 but up from the 1,038 such ancients during the same months in 2019. In other words, a decline from 2022 and 2023 highs will probably still mean much higher levels of auto thefts than in 2019.
The surge in auto thefts in big cities is a fascinating and rare crime trend from a purely analytic perspective. Crime trends usually change slowly for complex reasons. It is rare to have a crime trend that has an obvious cause which produces a dramatic and sudden change. There are also fascinating analytic elements to this trend: why did some cities seeing huge sudden increases while others haven’t seen any such increase? Why are auto thefts down in Portland this year relative to 2021 despite the share of auto thefts involving a Kia or Hyundai increasing from 2.4 percent in 2021 to 28.9 percent in 2023? Do people in small cities not watch TikTok?
All interesting questions that will hopefully one day be answered. In the meantime, the available evidence suggests that the one crime that surged up nationally in 2023 may finally be seeing a decline.