NEWARK — Nearly four months ago, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer called for the creation of a national auto theft task force to crack down on a 16.5% increase in car thefts from 2020 to 2021.

With the problem even worse in New Jersey, Gottheimer, D-NJ-5th, convened with state and local officials at Port Newark on Wednesday morning to provide an update on his request.

Or rather, the lack of an update. Gottheimer called it an "unacceptable" failure on the part of agencies such as the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs & Border Patrol, to engage with the public about what actions they are taking.

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The congressman specifically called out DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in demanding a more robust response to the "unprecedented" auto theft spike.

"We need Customs & Border Patrol and other agencies within DHS to immediately strengthen law enforcement presence and improve inspections at the ports and of containers, and the Treasury and Justice departments must look at the international illicit financing angle of these criminals," Gottheimer said.

Two reasons for the spike

Allendale Police Chief Michael Dillon, joining Gottheimer, said shipping cars overseas for profit is indeed one of the two main drivers of the increased thefts, but the other reason is simply as a vehicle, literally, to commit more serious crimes: homicides, robberies, and shootings.

"Over the past year, auto theft in New Jersey has morphed into what usually was a surreptitious crime, which occurred in a residential driveway during overnight hours, into carjackings and home invasion burglaries," Dillon said, adding this can take quite an emotional toll on residents.

Gottheimer said law enforcement across the state is working overtime, and yet the thefts often remain "smooth sailing" for criminals, who may feel empowered to attack officers when pursued.

Increases continue unabated

The numbers back that up. In 2021 in New Jersey, according to Gottheimer, more than 14,000 vehicles were reported stolen, a 22% increase over 2020, which itself had seen a jump from 2019.

So far in 2022, through August, thefts are up 19% — and a whopping 54% in Bergen County, much of which Gottheimer represents.

"It feels like every day we read about yet another carjacking, or stolen vehicle literally taken out of someone's driveway as they sleep, or brazenly in broad daylight," Gottheimer said. "Within minutes these cars are chopped up for parts, or they're brought here where they're immediately put onto ships."

'Cut the engine'

Both Gottheimer and Dillon indicated the key to curbing the crisis is blocking the cash flow, referring to it as "cutting the head off the snake" or more appropriately, to "cut the engine."

Gottheimer compared modern theft operations to the "big boss" raking in all the money from drug transactions, rather than focusing on stopping the street-level dealers.

"This is not just a local issue," he said. "It's an international and national issue, multistate and global crime rings and enterprises."

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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