The healthy fear Milwaukee needs to curb unbridled car theft
You know those decals that make your car look like it’s been hit by gunfire?
My family’s car has something like that, only more authentic: a bullet hole in the tailgate.
It’s a souvenir of the car’s week-long absence, that and the smashed window, the traumatized bumpers, the demolished ignition switch, the rifled personal belongings.
The car was stolen.
Classic story, according to the clucks of sympathy from the cops who found it a week later. They found the car stashed on a Sunday afternoon in underbrush behind a charred vacant house near Locust St. and Fond du Lac Ave. in Milwaukee.
“How did it get there?” asked the tow-truck dispatcher. Answer: We parked it on a Saturday afternoon along a busy downtown street near Bastille Days. Yes, it’s a Kia.
“That happens,” she said.
But why? It’s nothing flashy, yet it got boosted. Whose fault is that?
Not Kia’s. The City of Milwaukee is suing the carmaker, as are other jurisdictions where authorities failed to protect citizens and need to deflect the heat. In May, Kia and Hyundai paid some law-degreed lamprey with a nationwide class-action $200 million to buzz off. All the suits claim that because Kias use keys to start — rather than costlier keys-with-chips — they’re practically inviting youthful miscreants to become thieving Kia Boyz.
We’ve had this Kia for three years. The first two, we lived in northern Virginia. It didn’t get stolen there — because there was no wave of car thefts there. Its supposedly flawed key raised no steal-me flag in the Fox Valley, either, where Mrs. McIlheran parked it each workday. Ditto our driveway: If our Kia was so attractive to theft, why did no one try that in our small town?
It was only in Milwaukee, where the car-theft rate is about 16 times what it was in the rest of Wisconsin, according to state figures — or three times what it was in the same city in 2017. It’s not the car that’s changed.
It’s not the fault of Milwaukee. The people who own the neatly gardened houses across the alley cannot be pleased that the abandoned duplex behind them attracts people dumping trash and stolen wheels. Can we blame the abandoned house’s owner? That’s the City of Milwaukee, so maybe it should sue itself.
It’s not the Milwaukee Police’s fault. They’re doing the best they can with ranks more than 20% thinner than they were two decades ago, and in a city beset by crime far above five years ago. I’m grateful for the sharp-eyed Officer B., who spotted my Kia amid the box elders, then waited for me to show up.
It isn’t the fault of videos. Milwaukee documentarian Thomas “Tommy G” Gerszewski in 2022 interviewed teens who admitted to car theft in a video that got 7 million views, but if anything, he reveals the thieves as witless punks deserving the scorn that adult interviewees gave them.
It was a choice
Whose fault is it, then?
I don’t know his name, because the cops haven’t caught him, but some damn fool made the decision to steal our car. It’s his fault, the guy who chose to learn how to use a USB cable to fool the ignition, who chose to loot the glovebox, who took the EZPass transponder, who stole a set of choirbooks, who swiped the holy card bearing the image called Divine Mercy from where Mrs. McIlheran left it on the visor. Perhaps he felt watched.
Among what the thief and his friends left were an empty blunt package, a used condom and an empty handgun magazine, now in police custody. I do not know the order in which these vices were indulged, but they don’t portend a trouble-free future. As the older Milwaukee gent interviewed by Gerszewski put it, “Stop before you get killed or kill everybody else.”
In other words: You all need Jesus. Hope you kept the holy card, thief.
Or looked in the choirbooks. The bookmark in one was set for the chants of the week. See the one that starts, “Venite, filii…” and ponder the translation: “Come, children, hear me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
How about fear of the law?
Failing that, fear of the law will do. We can demand that authorities try instilling that.
Thanks to that video, cops found one thief, then 17, who stole a rental car, driving it madly across lawns. Unfortunately, while Markell Hughes could have gotten 22 years in prison, last month he was sentenced to one.
Thefts are the fault of the thief, but our justice system surely could do its part. I can’t improve on the Milwaukee man who told Gerszewski, “To try to make a difference, you’ve got to start by making examples.”
So, too, the city can hire more police. The Common Council can stop blaming cars.
As for my family, it’s pretty clear. We can rethink just how much we want to visit Bastille Days or do anything else in a city that isn’t taking car theft seriously enough.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.
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