It's no surprise motor vehicle thefts have been on the rise in Wauwatosa, but police revealed details at a city hall meeting about how common the crime has become.

Wauwatosa police reported more than a 200 percent increase in stolen vehicles so far this year.

"This year, we have lost 22 motor vehicles through theft alone, (as) opposed to six at this time last year," Capt. Tim Sharpee told a city committee Feb. 9.

Sharpee said 60 vehicles were stolen during 2013, 87 were stolen in 2014 and 169 cars were stolen in 2015.

Sharpee said those numbers do not include car jackings, which are classified as robberies in police reports.

"What is most troubling, on top of people having their cars stolen, is the manner it's taken and that these cars are used in violent crimes," he said. "We are not only seeing violent criminals coming into our city to take these cars, but they're using them for violent crimes and they're also then driving stolen vehicles in and around our city."

Sharpee said in early 2015, the city of Milwaukee experienced an uptick in motor vehicle thefts. When summer hit, a larger number of vehicles were taken through the use of force — including a weapon, a threat of a weapon or use of physical force — and the trend continued through the fall.

The police captain said the criminal trend has trickled into Wauwatosa due to the city's proximity to Milwaukee.

'Crime of opportunity'

Police officials said a number of vehicles are stolen during winter months when they're left warming up outside — a "crime of opportunity," Sharpee said.

"These crimes aren't all happening at 9 o'clock at night," Sharpee said. "We're seeing a majority of these crimes occurring in the morning. When people don't suspect it, they're going to be victims of a violent crime as they're getting their cup of coffee, leaving to (get to) their car at 8 o'clock in the morning."

Sgt. Brad Beckman said the department has learned from a number of victims that insurance companies refuse to pay for vehicles left running with the keys inside.

Those who are committing the crimes are often juveniles under the age of 16, Sharpee said.

"We are dealing with kids, who are often armed, who are driving recklessly and who often don't have the experience to operate a motor vehicle," he said.

The purpose for stealing a vehicle has changed in recent years, he said.

"It was no longer — what I remember as a police officer, and that was taking a car, joy riding and dumping a car," he said "It was being used for criminal activity and serious violent criminal activity."

Further, the captain said the vehicles are often totaled and no longer drivable when they are recovered.

A number of city officials said they hoped to work with police to deter the rising criminal trend.

"I think sometimes there's a fear of us wanting to acknowledge the problems because it reflects on what we're doing," Alderman Matt Stippich said following the presentation at city hall. He added the city's communication with law enforcement should be transparent so all parties can help fight the problem.

Wauwatosa police recommended the following tips to the public:

· Don't leave your vehicle running outside.

· Be aware of your surroundings and don't check your phone while walking to your vehicle.

· Don't "look like a victim," and "walk tall" when approaching your vehicle.

"If the hair on the back of your neck stands up and it doesn't feel right, it is not right," Sharpee said.

Sharpee said the police department has deployed a number of tactics to combat the problem, including a "boots on the ground" approach, in which officers on patrol shut a vehicle off when they notice it idling outside. The officers then walk up to the home and educate the vehicle owner about the risks of leaving a car running.

The captain added the Wauwatosa Police Department is also working with the city of Milwaukee, among other entities.

"I feel confident we are going to get a grasp on this," Sharpee said, later adding, "I'm very pleased with our ability to get this under control."

This story has been updated from its original version. 

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