Vol. 81, No. 3Cover stories

A man and a woman sit in the front seats of a vehicle. Another man sits in the back seat.

An extra set of eyes

Volunteers help police recover stolen vehicles

Volunteers with the RCMP's Stolen Auto Recovery Program in Surrey, B.C., prepare for their shift. Credit: RCMP


Helping to catch criminals and recover pilfered property are two of the big rewards for Bill Ingram, who volunteers with the RCMP in Surrey, B.C. to locate stolen vehicles.

But there's an even greater return for the 59-year-old retiree.

"It allows me to give back to the community I was born and raised in," says Ingram, who lends his time to the RCMP's Surrey Stolen Auto Recovery Program.

On patrol

Teams of program volunteers patrol neighbourhoods several times each week to check licence plates in search of stolen vehicles. Their efforts support officers such as Cst. John Tsonos, who works with the Surrey RCMP's Auto Crime Target Team.

"Their value is an extra set of eyes and ears in the community," says Tsonos, who volunteered with the police in Kingston, Ont. before graduating from Depot in 2008.

According to RCMP in Surrey, the Stolen Auto Recovery Program volunteers examine thousands of plates each month. In 2018, they helped recover more than 41 stolen vehicles. So far in 2019, they've helped return 29 vehicles to their rightful owners, leading to multiple arrests.

"The sooner we can locate a stolen car the better. It gives us the chance to start an investigation as quickly as possible, find fingerprints and hopefully lay charges," says Tsonos.

Ingram shows up for a four-hour shift about twice a week, sometimes more. He's one of a three-person team — a driver and two partners — who enter plate numbers of parked and moving vehicles into an app using smartphones provided by the City of Surrey.

"It's really a team effort," says Ingram. "I think we all feel a sense of achievement knowing we can help police and help return a car to the owner."

Before their work day officially begins, volunteers receive "a data package" that's been compiled by RCMP analysts to strategically plan much of the volunteers' patrol.

"They (the analysts) know day by day which areas had the biggest spike in car thefts and recoveries (of vehicles)," says Gabriel Pelletier, an RCMP community programs co-ordinator in Surrey. "So with some level of certainty, they can focus the team's efforts on recovery."

He adds that data provided by the Canadian Police Information Centre also lets volunteers and police know if the plates belong to a stolen vehicle.

Targeted approach

The volunteers have been trained to look for tampered or missing licence plates, rolled down windows and certain makes and models of vehicles — all telltale signs of stolen property.

Tsonos says his years on the job have helped him understand the motives behind vehicle thefts and why some stolen cars are abandoned.

He says they are used to commit other crimes or to flee the scene after a crime has been committed, and then eventually left on streets or in parking lots. Often they're dumped in areas where a vehicle new to area could go overlooked for a long period of time.

"High-density areas with lots of cars and visitor parking stalls are popular places for stolen vehicles because they may go unnoticed," says Tsonos, who adds the element of familiarity is why volunteers also like to patrol their own neighbourhood.

"They know what to look for and if they see something sticking out, they'll notice it. After living in an area for a while you get to know the vehicles that come and go."

If the Stolen Auto Recovery volunteers get a hit, they'll double-check the plate to make sure the vehicle is stolen and then report the find after leaving the scene.

"We always push safety to our volunteers," says Tsonos. "We don't want any confrontations."

Pelletier says the program has been around since the early 2000s and has helped to further link RCMP officers with the community they serve.

"It's brought volunteers together with police, and that has helped to build and sustain connections within the community."

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