YAKIMA, Wash. — When Yakima police arrested Rodney Harlan in December, he was standing near a stolen Nissan Pathfinder.
In his pocket, police said, was the key to a Toyota Tacoma that had been stolen shortly before his arrest.
Last week, Harlan was sentenced to seven years in prison after jurors found him guilty of residential burglary, possessing a stolen vehicle and third-degree possession of stolen property.
Harlan’s case is unusual for the length of his sentence, but police say a relatively small group of repeat offenders like him are responsible for giving the Yakima area one of the highest car theft rates in the nation. Among nearly 10 felony convictions as an adult, Harlan has two cases dating back to 1994 that involve stolen vehicles.
2015 auto theft hotspots
|National Rank||Area||Thefts||Rate per 100,000|
|25||Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA||2,430||443.57|
|118||Mount Vernon-Anacortes, WA||259||212.56|
|144||Walla Walla, WA||122||189.79|
The National Insurance Crime Bureau annually compiles car theft statistics.
Yakima County’s rate of stolen vehicles has fluctuated over the years, reaching the nation’s third highest rate per 100,000 residents in 2008. But in recent years, that rate has been dropping. Last year, the area slid to 19th in the country - down from 15th place in 2004. The 2015 rate per 100,000 residents was 470.2.
Still, among Washington areas measured by the NICB, Yakima County returned to being the top-rated jurisdiction, with more thefts per capita than Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue (ranked 20th, with 461 thefts per 100,000 residents) and Spokane-Spokane Valley (ranked 25th, with a rate of 443.5 thefts). The county had ranked at third in 2015 among Washington cities.
In actual numbers, Yakima police — the county’s largest law enforcement agency — reported almost 40 fewer cars stolen in 2015 than in 2014 — 700 instead of 739, or a 5 percent decrease.
Yakima police Capt. Jeff Schneider, who oversees the department’s property crimes detectives, suggested that the city’s ranking reflects changes in the other cities more than it does a spike in Yakima thefts, which remained effectively flat.
“What’s going on in Seattle or Tacoma or Vancouver doesn’t affect the people living in Yakima. What affects them is the five percent decrease,” Schneider said.
For example, while not accounting for the entire Seattle statistical area measured in the NICB report, Seattle police reported a 29 percent decline in auto thefts between 2014 and 2015. Spokane also saw a significant drop in that period.
Schneider said patrol officers and detectives deal with the same names over and over as they investigate auto thefts.
“You see small numbers of people responsible for a huge number of thefts,” he said.
And while Harlan’s case is unusual because his extensive criminal history drove up his maximum sentencing range, police have long complained that state law limits the severity of time behind bars for most defendants. Prosecutors had sought even more time for Harlan, unsuccessfully arguing that his sentence did not fully account for both his felony and misdemeanor history.
Further adding to the problem is Yakima drivers’ longstanding habit of leaving their cars to warm up while unattended, even during relatively warm days.
“Despite our years and years and years of telling people, “Don’t warm up cars,” they still do it,” Schneider said.