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Police Communities Band Together To Combat Car Theft



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Seven regional police departments have banded together to help fight against a rash of car thefts plaguing many communities across Connecticut.

At a press conference at Newtown Police Department on November 24, representatives from Newtown, Bridgeport, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford, Trumbull, and Westport outlined Operation Wingspan, an effort to identify stolen vehicles from suburban communities that are often taken to Bridgeport, often to commit crimes. Newtown Police Chief James Viadero said his department, along with Fairfield, Stratford, Trumbull, and Westport, used COVID relief grants to commit one officer per department to stolen vehicle investigations, all working from the Bridgeport Police Fusion Center with 10 members of Bridgeport PD. The Fusion Center allows the Bridgeport PD to monitor 1,200 traffic cameras throughout the city, as well as license plate readers. Bridgeport received $195,000 in funding, and each other department received $35,000 in funding.

Bridgeport Police Chief Rebeca Garcia said the effort is a collaborative one, “with Bridgeport identified as a hub.”

According to materials given out at the press conference, Operation Wingspan has led to 84 recovered vehicles, including 17 from Newtown. Of those 84 vehicles, 70 were reported stolen, and 11 recovered in the commission of a crime. Operation Wingspan has also led to seven juvenile arrests, 38 adult arrests, 12 firearms recovered, and five seizures of narcotics. This was accomplished through periods of targeted enforcement started on September 22.

Viadero said that while he and others are happy with the results, “We’d be happier” to see a stop to car thefts altogether.

The grant money being used by each department for overtime to assign an officer to Operation Wingspan runs out on January 1.

“We’ll see if the state extends it,” Viadero said. “We’d love to see that happen.”

The participating police departments may consider continuing the program even if the grant money runs out, said Viadero.

“This has gone above what we ever expected,” said Garcia. “We’ve not only been recovering stolen cars but we’re building evidence for arrests.”

Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore said that of the 12 recovered firearms, one had been used in a shooting outside the jurisdictions of the six participating departments.

“It’s surprisingly satisfying seeing the results,” said Salvatore.

Garcia stated that the accomplishments could not be done without the “boots on the ground” — the work of the officers assigned to the program.

“We definitely thank each and every one of them,” said Garcia.

Garcia said that the officers in the Fusion Center give information on the stolen vehicles from their communities and then “put their feelers out” to figure out where the cars have been traveling.

A Deterrence Effect

Viadero said that the program “needs cooperation” and that all the departments have been “very proactive” in working together and conducting surveillance to look for vehicles.

Garcia said that efforts have led to the identification of “certain juveniles who have been involved in a lot of car thefts.” The departments, she said, are working with juvenile probation to try and limit their ability to repeat offend. Viadero said the task force also monitors social media, because sometimes the juveniles will steal a vehicle and then post about it on social media.

“To them it’s entertaining,” said Viadero.

Stratford Police Chief Joe McNeil said there have been some juveniles who have been arrested “10 to 12 times.”

“Obviously the system is not working,” said McNeil. “I’m not saying they should be put in jail, but there needs to be accountability. Some of these situations end with juveniles killing juveniles. That’s terrible and it has to stop.”

McNeil said the efforts of Operation Wingspan have been very noticeable in his community.

“We’ve gone from 10 [thefts] per week to zero,” said McNeil. “This task force was created because this was a problem all towns have.”

McNeil said it has helped to “solve a lot of other crimes.”

“Our actions have had solid results,” he said. “This is something that has to continue. We should have been doing this a long time ago. It’s very effective.”

McNeil said he believes Operation Wingspan has had a “deterrence effect.”

“They know we’re out there and looking for them,” said McNeil. “And we will find them.”

Viadero said the press conference was planned because the departments wanted an “opportunity to talk about its success.”

“We feel this program is working and worth extending,” said Viadero.

Prevention Reminders

Viadero also gave a reminder to residents of all the communities that they should do their part to end car thefts by keeping their vehicles locked and not leave their fobs in the vehicle, as most car thefts are “crimes of opportunity.”

Car thieves search for unlocked vehicles in the early hours of the morning to either steal the vehicle or search it for valuables, said Viadero. If they find an unlocked vehicle, the thieves will press the ignition button to see if a fob is hidden in the vehicle. If the vehicle starts, they’re on their way.

“The results could be tragic,” said Viadero. “Hopefully a stolen vehicle is not used in the furtherance of crime.”

Viadero also warned about leaving vehicles running, noting separate incidents in Fairfield and Ansonia where a vehicle was left running with a teenage passenger in the vehicle. In both cases, the teenagers were released by the car thieves.

“These situations have the potential for a tragic end,” said Viadero.

Viadero also warned that thieves have been stealing catalytic converters off vehicles.

“The thieves get pennies on the dollar in cash,” said Viadero. “But it’s a $1,500 to $2,000 problem for the car owner.”

Reporter Jim Taylor can be reached at jim@thebee.com.

Newtown Police Chief James Viadero speaks during a November 24 press conference that unveiled Operation Wingspan, a seven-community cooperative effort to investigate car thefts. Joining him, from left, is Bridgeport Police Chief Rebeca Garcia, Trumbull Police Chief Michael Lombardo, and Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas. —Bee Photos, Hallebeck
The chiefs of seven regional police departments conducted a press conference last week to unveil a collaborative effort to reduce the rash of car thefts plaguing many communities. From left is Newtown Police Chief James Viadero, Stratford Police Chief Joe McNeil, Fairfield Deputy Police Chief John Bucherati, Bridgeport Police Chief Rebeca Garcia, Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore, Trumbull Police Chief Michael Lombardo, and Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas.
Bridgeport Police Chief Rebeca Garcia speaks during the November 24 press conference.
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