Police, cancer researchers team up to track stolen vehicles

Cops "wanted to bring a data-driven approach to identifying stolen vehicles."

May 3, 2024, 9:30 AM

Police in Portland, Oregon, are arresting more suspected car thieves and reducing the number of vehicles stolen, thanks to a partnership with cancer researchers.

Officer Michael Terrett said he came up with the idea of a more strategic approach to battling car thefts after the city saw a steep rise in stolen cars in 2019.

Terrett said they once found a stolen vehicle among every 31 pulled over. While Terrett calls that "a level of success," he said he knew they could do more. "I connected with my lieutenant and said, 'I believe there's an opportunity to get better here, if we take a more data-driven, data mining, evidence-based practice approach,'" Terrett told ABC News.

Dr. Jeffrey Tyner, a professor at the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University, told ABC News Terrett approached him at a social gathering about helping improve the city's stolen vehicle problem.

Tyner said they realized his experience in data science could be useful.

"He told me about his concept that he wanted to bring a data-driven approach to identifying stolen vehicles," Tyner said. "I actually thought it was a natural fit because we use data. They were interested in using data - obviously for very different purposes. But data is data."

PHOTO: Police in Portland, Oregon, are arresting more suspected car thieves and reducing the number of vehicles stolen, thanks to a partnership with cancer researchers.
Police in Portland, Oregon, are arresting more suspected car thieves and reducing the number of vehicles stolen, thanks to a partnership with cancer researchers.
Portland Police Bureau

Terrett said the Portland Police Bureau does a good job of recovering stolen vehicles after they've been abandoned. But the goal now is to find them before that point.

So, the two brought their teams together for the first time in 2022.

Using data gathered by various officers, Terrett developed a list of stolen vehicle characteristics, ranging from a missing license plate or altered trip permit, to self-tinted windows.

PHOTO: Portland Police Bureau catch a suspected car thief on the 14th hole of a Portland golf course.
Portland Police Bureau catch a suspected car thief on the 14th hole of a Portland golf course.
Portland Police Bureau

Tyner's team helps the bureau analyze the data. That information is used to develop probabilities that certain cars are stolen, resulting in more targeted traffic stops. Using the new strategy resulted in a much higher number of arrests. One out of every four vehicles pulled over turned out to be stolen, instead of the previous one in 31, according to the Portland Police Bureau.

Terrett said stolen vehicles are frequently used to commit other crimes, so pulling over stolen vehicles often leads to reducing other crimes.

"If we can apprehend that vehicle with that person in the car, we are likely - as our statistics have shown - going to take a gun off the street," Terrett said. "There is likely a person in that vehicle with an active arrest warrant that we can take into custody. And who knows what we have just stopped from occurring in the community."

Since Terrett and Tyner's teams started working together, officers reported finding an illegal gun in every 26 cars, compared to the previous one in 144. And, fewer vehicles are getting taken. Over the last 15 months, the number of vehicles reported stolen is down by 50%, police said.

PHOTO: Portland Police officers take part in roll call before a SVO.
Portland Police officers take part in roll call before a SVO.
Portland Police Bureau

Previous attempts to address the stolen vehicle problem were met with accusations of racial profiling. Terrett, however, said he knew, "If we analyzed, at a data level, elements that we're seeing on stolen vehicles, we could see patterns. And we can use the data to cut through bias and to understand exactly what a stolen car looks like, whereby we can increase our probability of success."

He wanted to find someone local who could help analyze information gathered on traffic stops and increase law enforcement efficiency. He said the list of characteristics, which he calls "enrichment factors," is constantly changing,

"There was a time period when, if we heard a car with a catalytic converter cut off, which is loud, that was our number one enrichment factor at the time, that the vehicle was stolen," he said.

PHOTO: A stolen car is recovered in Portland.
A stolen car is recovered in Portland.
Portland Police Bureau

However, he said new laws significantly reduced the number of catalytic converter thefts, so the data had to evolve. Tyner wasn't surprised.

"Here, we have collected data on patients with Leukemia over the course of years, and we've had to change the way we approach the data. We've had to change the way we think about and analyze the data based on the evolving trends in cancer therapeutics," Tyner said

Tyner's team now meets quarterly with the Portland Police Bureau to assess and adjust their data. He sees a promising future for the project.

"I think the results that the PPB team has been able to deliver have been phenomenal, in terms of their ability to use the data, train their officers and to be much more precise and efficient with how they can identify stolen vehicles," he said. "But also the trends of reduced stolen vehicles that are being seen here in Portland, which is a major contrast to what's being seen nationwide."

Portland Police recently received a three-year $800,000 Smart Policing grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to formalize the partnership with OHSU and continue their work analyzing the data. Police agencies from as far away as Wisconsin are now asking Portland to share its tactics.

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