ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now an item from the annals of law enforcement and the video library of Detective Chris Dengeles.
Detective CHRIS DENGELES (Auto Crimes Unit, Arlington County Police Department): Let's take a peak at this one.
SIEGEL: Dengeles runs the bait car program for the Arlington County, Virginia Police. They got the idea from Minneapolis and it spread all around the national capital region and elsewhere.
A bait car is typically the most commonly stolen model in a given area. It's parked some place where cars have recently been stolen or broken into and it's decked out to look like the kind of car that might ordinarily be stolen. There might be a hidden set of keys in the glove compartment or there might be some items scattered on the back seat.
In Arlington, every couple of weeks, someone breaks into a bait car and they are in for a surprise. They drive off and then suddenly they see the lights of a patrol car. The engine turns off and in some models the door's locked on them. The thief is under arrest and the whole thing has been captured on a video camera. The video, after serving as evidence, ends up in Chris Dengeles's collection.
So he's entered through the back door of the car.
Mr. DENGELES: Yeah, for some reason, and we're not exactly sure why, there are a lot of our suspects that do enter through the rear of the vehicle. In this particular case, these two individuals have entered the car and started searching the interior. And then you can see that the gentleman pulls a machete from his waistband. The driver is actually a member of MS-13 Gang and the passenger is an associate of that gang.
SIEGEL: The passenger (unintelligible) we're hearing him now, he's literally giddy over this.
Mr. DENGELES: Absolutely, they're very excited.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DENGELES: They're not the smartest folks in the world, though, because the emergency brake is actually pulled. So they spend about a good two to three minutes trying to figure out how to get the car to move.
SIEGEL: The machete-wielding passenger finally figures it out, but from the seconds the perps broke in they were doomed. The bait car has electronic triggers, which send a wireless signal to the Arlington County Police Communication Center. Using an old-fashioned decoy meant the cops had to stake out a vehicle. Watching paint dry was how one Arlington officer described that.
Well, now Detective Dengeles tell us this signal alerts the dispatcher who tracks the car by GPS and who notifies police in patrol cars nearby. When the police get close and the situation is safe, the dispatcher remotely disables the bait car. This video shows the cops approaching.
Detective DENGELES: This is the point where the driver is going to tell a passenger that the police are behind them. And you can see a drastic mood changed inside the vehicle. Now, also the gentlemen still has the machete on his lap and he's going to move the machete in between the two seats because it's obviously a piece of equipment he doesn't want to have on his person when the police approach.
SIEGEL: In this case, the thieves pleaded guilty and the passenger was charged with carrying a concealed weapon.
Detective DENGELES: He would adamantly deny that he ever had that weapon in his possession, and it wasn't - it was just for the exception of the tape. When we actually showed it in court at that time, he entered a plea of guilty.
SIEGEL: A lawyer could try to argue entrapment.
Detective DENGELES: One thing you have to remember about entrapment is entrapment is obviously when the government places the idea to commit a crime in a person's head that wasn't already there, and nothing about our vehicles or our program does that.
SIEGEL: You can see this video on our Web site, npr.org, with the face of the passenger with the machete blurred because he was a minor. Since Arlington started the program in 2002, the police have captured 67 suspects this way and 59 have been charged. Detective Dengeles says the ones who were not charged were typically minors. Of the 59 who went to court...
Detective DENGELES: A hundred percent conviction rate.
SIEGEL: How big a piece of police work is stolen cars and people breaking into cars to take things from them?
Detective DENGELES: Well, in Arlington it's getting fewer and fewer every year. I mean since we started this program in 2002, we're actually down 50 percent in auto theft. But speaking regionally, in the metropolitan area, I mean auto theft is the vehicle, if you will, for a lot of different crimes. If you remember the high-profile bank robbers on George - that was Wisconsin Avenue.
SIEGEL: In Washington, D.C.
Detective DENGELES: Correct. Well, they were using a stolen car to commit those crimes.
SIEGEL: So to catch a thief, catch a car thief. Watching some of Detective Dengeles's bait car videos, you get a rare glimpse into thieves at the moment of stealth, of cockiness, of astonishment, then cursing at imminent defeat, and not uncommonly a moment of prayer after that. There's one car thief who mumbles in Spanish, poor little car, and then upon seeing the police segues to poor little me.
SIEGEL: You could hold workshops on crime writing right now because you have this library of videos of what crooks are actually saying and doing as they are committing the crime and being arrested.
Detective DENGELES: Exactly. And we really learned quite a bit from this. I mean to see exactly what happens inside of a vehicle, it is interesting. And sometimes even humorous. But it's nice that we have the upper edge on the bad guys right now. How long that'll last for I have no idea, because they're always thinking. But we'll try to maintain that edge.
SIEGEL: Well, Detective Chris Dengeles of the Arlington Police, thank you very much for talking with us.
Detective DENGELES: Thank you.