Forest Park police are going fishing for car thieves with a "bait car" donated by a national car insurance company.
A bait car is a vehicle that's meant to be stolen and is planted in an area where that's likely to happen. Police chief Tom Aftanas said bait cars are equipped with electronics that allow police to remotely turn off the engine and lock doors, allowing officers to avoid a chase and nab offenders.
"We hope that word spreads that Forest Park is using a bait car and they stop coming here," Aftanas said of car thieves.
Nationwide Insurance Co. recently agreed to donate a bait car to Forest Park police, in a show of support for the department's work in combating local vehicle thefts and carjackings. In 2017, 71 cars were stolen in Forest Park, up from 32 taken the year before, according to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reporting program. Officers arrested 15 people for car theft in 2017, as opposed to just one arrest in 2016.
In addition to obtaining the free bait car from Nationwide, Aftanas said officials at the insurance company connected the department with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which agreed to donate $6,500 for the purchase and installation of electronics, audio and video recording equipment inside the bait car, which police will use to gather evidence. Based in Des Plaines, the National Insurance Crime Bureau is a nonprofit dedicated to preventing, detecting and defeating insurance fraud and vehicle theft.
"We got lucky," Aftanas said of the soon-to come vehicle.
Under the agreement with Nationwide, Forest Park will have possession of the bait car for three years with the option to extend the agreement. Police will have to provide quarterly reports with statistics on how often the bait car is used and how many arrests are made.
Forest Park's bait car will be the only such vehicle used in northern Illinois, Aftanas explained.
"This is a big deal for Forest Park," said Mayor Anthony Calderone, right before the village council unanimously agreed to enter into a vehicle use agreement with Nationwide at a regular meeting on May 29.
Aftanas credited Lt. Ken Gross for suggesting that the department employ a bait car.
While attending a training seminar two years ago, Gross learned that Nationwide had a reputation for assisting police departments, Aftanas explained. He said Gross sent a blind email in December to Nationwide officials, who responded within 24 hours. The Ohio-based insurance company later agreed to let the department use the bait car for free.
Aftanas said the bait car will not be on the street for at least a few months, noting that the department is still not in possession of the vehicle and that the village mechanic still needs to install the electronics and other equipment, which have yet to be purchased.
Once in use, Aftanas said Forest Park will share the bait car with neighboring departments, primarily the eight communities belonging to the West Suburban Enhanced Drug/Gang Enforcement Task Force (WEDGE). Formed in 2006, WEDGE is comprised of police from Berwyn, Brookfield, Elmwood Park, Forest Park, North Riverside, Oak Park, River Forest and Riverside, and aims to jointly attack gang activity.
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