‘When you’re poor, you can’t recover’: Spiking crime repeatedly targets people with low income

A debilitating back injury left Michelle Noel disabled and living in a limited-income apartment in North Tacoma. But even with her physical limitations, she was still earning a living as a rideshare delivery driver. But all of that ended after thieves targeted her new Kia twice.

“They didn’t care that the car was my living,” Noel said, adding that other cars were also broken into in her apartment parking lot.

“When we get hit, we get hit bad,” she said.

Thieves were not successful in their attempts to steal the car, but the damage they left also smashed and trashed her source of daily income.

“My rear car window was busted out,” she said. “Then I got closer and realized that my steering column had been ripped out.”

Location-specific data KIRO 7 combed through indicates reports of auto theft and vehicle prowling are common in the area where Noel lives. The first one left her with very limited options.

“I had a $500 deductible for insurance plus two weeks’ worth of loss work is another $1,500 to $2,000,” she said. “And when you’re poor like this at the bottom end, you don’t recover from things like that.”

KIRO 7 found Noel’s story is part of a frustrating trend. Crime data from Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties reveal a clear pattern. Where most property crime is concentrated, the people being targeted are typically financially challenged. One car theft can leave the victim with life-changing losses.

“I had to borrow money to get by (after the first break-in) and I’m just barely getting that money paid off. And then this happens again,” she said.

Noel said twelve weeks after the first attempted theft, thieves tried and failed to steal her car again from the same parking lot. This time, she was unable to pay for repairs.

“My credit is gone again, after five years of rebuilding it, it’s gone in a matter of six months.”

In Pierce County, data shows crime overall is down this year, but two things stick out. Armed robberies are up 32% above average levels, and auto theft is up 34% overall. An interactive crime map can be found here.

In one area including University Place, reports of auto theft have exploded by 79% above average levels since last year.

Snohomish County also offers an interactive map showing crime trends. The good news here is violent crime numbers for violent crime including murders, assaults, robberies, and rapes have all dropped this year.

But the amount of car break-ins and stolen cars in the same areas is already higher this year than the previous two, and most of those reports appear to be coming from areas with low incomes.

King County also offers an interactive crime map where KIRO 7 grabbed some of the highest numbers from the Burien area, where 53,000 people live in an area spanning eleven miles. However, the data shows most crimes over the last year have been concentrated in three spots across nine city blocks.

The poverty rate in Burien is nearly 19% higher than the Washington State average.

We noticed extremely high numbers of car thefts and assaults sticking out in a non-urban area just east of Federal Way, and we zoomed into the map, revealing a new affordable and limited-income housing complex, where even damage to a car can create a profound financial setback for the owner.

Angela Jones left Auburn for a gated apartment community in Fife.

“It just looked safer. There’s a locked gate here,” she said.

In May, eleven cars in Jones’ complex were broken into, and two were stolen in a single night. Twice, thieves targeted Jones’ family cars in her parking lot, costing her $1,700 to fix the shattered glass alone. Whoever broke into her car found nothing inside to steal.

“This looks secure. When I moved here, I thought it was secure. I have three little grandkids upstairs, plus my daughter and my son,” she said. “And I don’t feel safe now.”

Fife police told KIRO 7 they figured auto theft and car prowling reports have increased by 300% since 2019. A Fife community crime map can be found here.

What changed? Sgt. Darren Moss Jr. with the Pierce Co. Sheriff’s Office said most law enforcement officers agree with his theory.

“This was all created by the pursuit law change,” he said, adding state lawmakers sent a message, and thieves were listening.

“They told the crooks they were allowed to steal cars and drive away from police, and that’s what they’re doing,” Moss said.

Moss backed up KIRO 7′s research, saying car thefts tend to victimize people in income-challenged areas, and he said when vehicles are stolen many of those crimes become magnified.

“I want you to look at every single major crime scene we have and there’s always a stolen vehicle in there somewhere,” he said. “Homicides, armed robberies, burglaries, it’s all tied to stolen vehicles.”

Moss also said auto theft is typically a pattern crime with professional thieves. Six cars were stolen from the Tacoma Mall parking area over a single 24-hour period, but investigators say even more were broken into.

“They’ll do ten in one parking lot just to steal one car,” Moss said.

When asked for long-term solutions, Moss cited a justice system that does not regard vehicle theft as a priority.

“People are being released, people are not being held, people are not being held accountable for the crimes they’re committing,” he said. “They know the game they’re playing by the rules that we allow them to play with. If you allow crime to continue to fester, it’s going to go up.”

Moss said he believes more empathy and consideration should be given to the victims of property crimes, instead of the people caught for committing the crimes.

“Victims are being left behind by the rules, by the justice system, by everything. It’s working against the people who need us the most,” he said. “The people who are victimizing others? They’re getting off pretty easy right now and I would like to see that change.”