Crime and punishment: As property thefts of things like catalytic converters increase, law enforcement blames zero bail


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With California remaining open in spite of rising COVID-19 cases across the country, local police data indicates that crime is returning to pre-pandemic levels.

RETURNING TO OLD HABITS Reports of property theft from Jan. 1 to June 30 from 2017 to 2021 show that the crime is returning to pre-pandemic levels since the lockdown has been lifted. - SOURCE: SLO POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Source: SLO Police Department
  • RETURNING TO OLD HABITS Reports of property theft from Jan. 1 to June 30 from 2017 to 2021 show that the crime is returning to pre-pandemic levels since the lockdown has been lifted.

Though complaints of property theft decreased in 2020 compared to 2019 and the years prior, it has increased so far in 2021. Reports of property theft in the city of San Luis Obispo rose by almost 10 percent from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 compared to the same period in 2020, according to statistics from the SLO Police Department.

"COVID had a significant impact, as the community's daily life patterns were altered significantly from people working from home and/or sheltering. More activity and presence at home reduces the ability for criminals to commit crimes of opportunity," Police Chief Rick Scott said.

Now the number of property theft reports for the first half of the year is similar to the same time in 2019.

Though portable electronics frequently get stolen, catalytic converters from cars appear to be the item of choice. Ever since the pandemic took center stage in 2020, thefts of catalytic converters increased not only in SLO but also all over the U.S. On Sept. 8, the SLO Police Department announced that 137 catalytic converters had been stolen since January.

"Cat. [catalytic converter] theft has exploded across the country for the precious metals they contain, so we are continuing to alert our community of these crimes of opportunity," Scott said.

Kean McCabe of Los Osos experienced that trend up close and personal when the catalytic converter on his fiancée's Prius got ripped off over the summer. His sister's converter was stolen the day before. Together, the siblings lost roughly $5,000.

"It was hurtful to me when I realized someone stole it out of our car and put us behind [financially]. Someone is so low to take someone [else's] livelihood—a vehicle is what you take to work, to go to the grocery store to put food on the table," McCabe said.

He filed a report with the SLO County Sheriff's Office. He said no one reached out to him after he gave details.

Christopher Flint, who works at a Toyota dealership in the city of SLO, said that his workplace saw a "huge jump" in calls about theft over Labor Day weekend.

"On Monday [Sept. 6] alone, I received about 10 calls for cat. converters. And continuing throughout the week so far," Flint told New Times via email.

Flint said that some of his customers were "back-to-back" victims of catalytic converter thefts.

"The thefts have come in waves," he said.

ON THE RISE Catalytic converter thefts continue unabated as property thefts in SLO increase. - COVER IMAGE FROM ADOBE STOCK
  • Cover Image From Adobe Stock
  • ON THE RISE Catalytic converter thefts continue unabated as property thefts in SLO increase.

SLO Police Chief Scott said that curbing repeat offenses was tough because of California's "zero bail" policy that SLO County still observes, though the state's Judicial Council rescinded the order last summer. The emergency bail schedule sets bail at $0 for people who have been accused but not tried yet for misdemeanor crimes and certain felonies.

Zero bail is meant to help people from lower-income communities who are disproportionately incarcerated and to prevent overcrowding in prisons and jails, which were hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks. In an email to New Times, Grace Norris, the SLO Sheriff's Office's crime prevention specialist, said that the county jail's chief medical officer said there weren't any cases of COVID-19 among inmates currently.

According to previous New Times reporting, the bail policy allowed the release of hundreds of inmates awaiting trial in jail along with other arrestees after their initial booking.

"Overcrowding has not been the issue from our perspective. The statewide move toward zero bail has created significant challenges in arresting and holding offenders and specifically repeat offenders. When we are not able to effectively keep suspects in jail, they are free to re-victimize our community," Scott said.

Zero bail went into effect in April 2020. During a press conference that same month, Sheriff Ian Parkinson announced that his office was concerned about the mentally ill inmates who would walk free thanks to zero bail.

"Our team of health experts have been working in order to prepare to release them back into the community ... when they've been receiving treatment in the facility and ensure that they will receive treatment when they get out of custody along with their medication," Parkinson said at the time.

At the April 2020 press conference, Parkinson also announced that the Sheriff's Office would increase the number of street patrolling officers by 75 percent in anticipation of crimes that might take place during lockdown.

Norris confirmed that the move was proactive, not reactive.

"We recognized the community's concern and proactively reallocated resources to ensure we had additional deputies on patrol to discourage criminal behavior and to respond to calls for service," she said.

At the time, the Sheriff's Office reassigned deputies from specialized investigative units to patrol streets. Norris said that as of September all additional deputies who were transferred to street patrolling duty had returned to their original posts.

Not everyone in SLO sees eye to eye with the police and sheriff about zero bail. Alejandro Bupara with Abolitionist Action Central Coast SLO (AACCS) said that the bail system only widens the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

"We as a society have proven that 'innocent before proven guilty' is meaningless if we are going to have cash bail," he said. "It makes the people who are seen as undesirable bear the brunt of police control and get them locked up."

Other than community investment in housing, health care, and child care, and divesting funds from law enforcement agencies, Bupara and AACCS want to "break down the narrative that police are keeping us safe." The organization is currently challenging SLO City Council to reduce the Police Department's budget.

Bupara said that paying bail does little to reduce the overall amount of crime. He believes that the lack of access to basic amenities, like affordable housing and health care, prompts struggling people to steal, and victims like McCabe carry around that hurt.

"That's one of the hardest things about this: Harm does happen. It shows that people need real solutions, which policing is not capable of providing. They [law enforcement] were never meant to stop these things and keep it from happening. Their job is to respond to these cases after they happen. Even if they find the perpetrator, the crime can just keep happening to the same [people]," Bupara said.

While McCabe thinks the randomness of property thefts makes it tough for police to pin down the perpetrator, he agreed that the cycle of crime is a real problem.

"If no fine or proper punishment [is] established, I only guarantee it'll get worse," he said.

On the catalytic converter front, both McCabe and Toyota representative Flint offered their own solutions. Flint suggested matching prints of the sawing after the catalytic converter is hacked from the car.

"Those who had their cats. stolen, maybe they can take the green foam meant for flowers and press it on the cut pattern. Maybe then they can match the unique cut pattern (like a fingerprint) to the cat?" Flint's wife wrote in a post on SLO CountyNews' Facebook page.

McCabe had another idea: "They should set up a couple Priuses around town that are junked—I'd even donate my Prius, fuck it, who cares? Do a sting operation, leave it out on the street and leave cameras in it. That's the easiest way to catch someone," McCabe said. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at



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