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Car dealers could be required to secure keys, plates to combat thefts

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Gangs would have a tougher time stealing cars used to commit crimes if car dealers and rental car agencies would just lock up the keys and license plates.

So two aldermen are proposing an ordinance requiring them to do just that.

Sgt. Keith Blair, commanding officer of the Chicago Police Department’s Major Auto Theft Investigative Unit, said the proposed crackdown would go a long way toward stopping an epidemic of vehicle thefts in recent months.

“One incident, there were 13 vehicles taken out of a [rental car] storage facility. The keys were in every vehicle in that lot. The lot was blocked by a van that didn’t have keys in it, but the vehicle parked in front of that van had keys in it,” Blair said.

“The offenders got in the car in front of the van, put the car in drive, pushed the van out of the way and drove out of the lot with 13 rental vehicles in one incident. … It’s not just one or two people. It’s a group. They brought 13 individuals to one location at one time and drove off with 13 rental vehicles,” he added.

Willie Sutton was famously quoted as saying he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” The same could be said of vehicle thefts at car dealerships and rental car agencies, Blair said.

“They enter these lots, pull on doors, see what’s open. Take what they can get with keys in it. These vehicles are used in … bump-and-run thefts, armed robberies, shootings, homicides,” he said.

The ordinance championed by North Side aldermen Pat O’Connor (40th) and Harry Osterman (48th) would require all keys maintained by car dealers and rental car agencies to be “placed in a secure lockbox inside the salesroom or rental building at all times” when the facility is not open for business.

Special dealer plates issued by the Illinois Secretary of State’s office would have to be attached to vehicles by “tamper-resistant security screws” or placed in a secure lockbox inside the salesroom when the facility is closed.

Sgt. Keith Blair, commanding officer of the Chicago Police Department’s Major Auto Theft Investigative Unit, (right) shown with Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) after Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said stealing from some car lots is way too easy for some thieves because often the keys are left in the vehicles. | Fran Spielman for the Sun-Times

The City Council’s Committee on Public Safety took testimony, but did not vote on the ordinance, in part because the rental car industry is demanding an exemption for agencies operating at O’Hare and Midway airports.

The “carve-out amendment” for airport operations “due to the volume of cars” was requested by attorney John Daley, son of County Commissioner John Daley and nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“The act of removing car keys and plates and giving them back to customers will hinder the experience at the airport and obviously inconvenience customers,” Daley told aldermen.

Osterman acknowledged the rental car business at O’Hare and Midway is a “big operation” and that some kind of exemption might be justified.

“There are facilities that have cars off site. We’re gonna work with Chicago Police to look at the whole operation and try to work on a safety plan,” Osterman said.

“But we want to make sure — both at the airports and around the city — that cars aren’t being stolen and used in crimes.”

Osterman said he drafted the ordinance after one dealership in his North Side ward was hit repeatedly by thieves.

“If there’s one car that’s used by a gang or one car that’s used in the commission of a crime, that’s one car too many,” he said.