A new auto theft and gun violence task force would connect police efforts in Hartford, New Britain and neighboring suburbs

A new auto theft and gun violence task force would connect police efforts in Hartford, New Britain and neighboring suburbs
·6 min read

Police departments across the capital region are discussing formation of a joint task force to address the dramatic increases in auto thefts and gun violence that each has been battling alone.

The effort was spurred by the Connecticut State Police, which identified eight epicenters of auto theft across the state, including Hartford, New Britain and Meriden. Commissioner James Rovella recently gathered the chiefs of the eight cities and encouraged them to form regional task forces with their surrounding suburbs to share information and resources around stolen cars.

Hartford Police Chief Jason Thody says he reached out to the law enforcement leaders of 11 neighboring cities and towns, most of whom agreed to meet this week to address the enduring issue of juveniles stealing cars from the suburbs and using them to drive recklessly or commit other crimes throughout the region.

The Hartford police plan to work with the auto theft investigators in each community to share information and potentially catch more thieves in the act, Thody said. He’d like the task force to place greater focus on violent crime in New Britain, East Hartford, Manchester and Bloomfield, where police have seen similar street group activity and cases involving the same shooters or shooting victims.

According to preliminary data that won’t be finalized until the fall, there was a nearly 20% jump in car thefts in 2020 compared to the average of the past five years. Those numbers closely reflect national trends during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ken Barone, project manager for the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University, said recently.

In late June, a 53-year-old jogger from New Britain was killed in a hit-and-run after a pair of teens stole a vehicle. More recently, a Glastonbury woman was shot at after confronting two men attempting to break into her vehicle around 3 a.m. She wasn’t injured, but her home was damaged.

A 16-year-old was arrested in connection with a car theft last week in West Hartford where a 2-year-old was inside the vehicle. Meanwhile, in Manchester police say there were 114 motor vehicle thefts in 2019 but as of July 1 of this year, there had already been 101.

Last week was particularly violent in Hartford, with six shootings over just 72 hours beginning early Monday morning with the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Brian Oliver. He was found outside a multifamily home on Irving Street, a block down from a vacant corner of Albany Avenue where Hartford police once operated a substation.

Oliver was the 21st person murdered in Hartford this year. There had only been 13 homicides at this time last year.

That increase, which puts Hartford on pace for its most violent year in two decades, comes as the police department struggles with a staffing shortage driven by officers leaving for other departments and other fields.

The city isn’t alone in its challenges. Shootings and murders increased in many U.S. cities last year, as did the number of police officers leaving their departments and law enforcement, new data shows.

A national survey of 200 police departments found that retirements were up 45% and resignations 18% between April 2020 and March 2021, compared to the previous 12 month period. The Police Executive Research Firm, a Washington, D.C., policy institute, released the data in mid-June, bolstering theories that the coronavirus pandemic, protests, anti-police rhetoric and police reforms have driven many officers to quit.

“It's not a profession that people are beating down the door to get into,” Thody said in a city council public safety committee meeting last week.

The Hartford police department has shrunk from abut 430 officers in early 2020 to 407 officers in May to 396 now.

In order to staff patrol shifts, Thody decided in June to eliminate the department’s nine remaining walking beats, moving those community service officers to patrol. Four of those officers had been assigned full time to walk and bike the Upper Albany and upper Main Street areas where street groups have been violently feuding.

Hartford City Councilman Thomas “TJ” Clarke II, the Democratic majority leader, lamented the loss of those assignments, saying foot patrols can prevent a lot of negative activity in the neighborhoods.

“Those walk beats are critical. They’re just critical,” he said. “We’re at 21 homicides, and if we can find creative ways to increase police presence, that can help a lot.”

Thody has maintained the nonfatal shooting team he formed in March with a sergeant and six detectives, and the crime reduction team he formed in April with two sergeants and 16 officers. He said he would not consider pulling detectives from their assignments in order to restore walking beats, which he first scaled back in April.

“It just comes down to staffing,” Thody said Friday. “… I can only play with the cards in my hand, and right now we’ve got to make priority decisions, and unfortunately the walk beats aren’t in that mix right now.”

In the past, the Connecticut State Police has lent detectives and troopers to Hartford to assist with spikes in crime. A few troopers are embedded with Hartford police, including a trooper assigned to the gun violence and auto theft team, but the state isn’t sending more to help because the agency is also short-staffed.

There are about 850 troopers on the state force, far below the agency’s goal of 1,100, according to Brian Foley, executive assistant of the Department of Emergency Service and Public Protection.

The state police has its own auto theft task force as well, but the team was formed decades ago to fight insurance fraud and chop shops (illegal garages that would buy stolen cars for parts). The teens and young adults stealing cars today are most often using them to cruise and commit other crimes.

Today, the Connecticut Regional Auto Theft Task Force has just one trooper and one supervisor, assisting where they can, Foley said.

However, many municipalities have formed small car theft teams of their own. Rather than rebuild a large team of troopers, the state police decided to encourage the municipalities to work together.

The new regional task forces will have some support: Gov. Ned Lamont has set aside $5 million in federal CARES Act funding to help cities and towns address gun violence, car thefts and overdoses.

The money must be spent on overtime and personnel, Thody said.

It was not clear Friday how much of the money will go to each cause or how the funds will be distributed.

Rebecca Lurye can be reached at rlurye@courant.com.