A brazen car thief has been stealing unmarked cop cars -- and police have been slow to notice.
Since Memorial Day, three undercover police cars have been swiped from a city lot near the Hall of Justice. But the department failed to realize two of the cars were missing for a week or more, and one of them was used to commit a minor crime.
"It's a reminder that not even police are safe from crime," Police Chief Fred Lau said Monday. "We need to be more mindful. We need to be careful, too."
In one case, a car was noticed missing the day after it was used for official police business. But no one noticed the other two cars had disappeared because the inspectors who were assigned to them had parked them and gone on vacation.
Some in the department are embarrassed -- and some angry -- that a thief is targeting cops.
The three stolen cars are "white whales" -- plain white Chevrolet Caprices from the early 1990s, popular with many police agencies. Each comes with a siren and a flashing light that can be placed on top of the dashboard. But none has radios or other equipment.
"All the cops and all the crooks recognize it as a police car," said Lt. Dirk Beijen.
The cars were stolen from the same police lot a half block from the Hall of Justice. Although the lot is surrounded by a tall fence, topped with barbed wire, the electronic gate has been broken for months and the door remains wide open.
So, skilled thieves can walk in and drive out with the car of their choice.
No one in the department noticed that anything was amiss until the Department of Motor Vehicles notified Beijen on June 13 that a 1993 Caprice with a special license plate assigned to SFPD was spotted during a crime in Sunnyvale 11 days before. The inspector assigned to the 1993 Caprice was off in late May and June and had left the car in the police lot.
Beijen said the stolen car was used June 2 by a man and woman to make a traffic stop on another car. The victim and the woman in the stolen car had argued minutes before at a gas station, Beijen said. The stolen car's siren and flashing light were used to make the stop, he said. When the victim refused to step out of her vehicle, the Caprice's driver bumped her car with his and sped away.
"She didn't believe they were cops," Beijen said. "They apparently did not watch enough cop shows to be able to convince her."
The victim and several witnesses copied the Caprice's license plate and reported it to police.
But Sunnyvale police, who did not return phone calls Monday, couldn't simply punch the plate's number into a police computer and come up with the owner's name. The stolen car had special plate numbers that are "unlisted," a common practice for cars that might be used undercover, Beijen said. Sunnyvale police had to contact the DMV, which, in turn, notified San Francisco police June 13.
Beijen then began looking into databases and learned that the 1993 Caprice had been found abandoned on a highway in Cupertino by the Highway Patrol four days before and had been towed. The CHP apparently had not been able to figure out who owned the car, either.
"They deal with a lot of abandoned cars," Beijen noted. "It had not been reported stolen" so the CHP was not looking out for it.
Authorities would not say if the siren and flashing lights were recovered.
In the days after Beijen learned the first car was missing, police discovered that the other two had vanished.
On June 14, a 1992 Caprice assigned to the Night Investigations unit that had been idle for a week was discovered missing. The next morning, another 1992 Caprice -- used the day before by a burglary inspector -- was gone. There has been no sign of them.
Auto theft experts note that the Caprice is one of the easiest cars to steal.
"I'm taking steps to make these cars be more secure," Lau said Monday, adding he also will make sure the gate to the city lot is fixed.
The chief also noted that newer cars purchased by the department have security features that make theft more difficult.
This is certainly not the first time that cars have disappeared near the Hall of Justice.
Cop car towed
In March, the department admitted that a Ford Taurus assigned to an inspector in the hit-and-run detail was towed after it was parked in a no parking zone on Sixth Street during rush hour. The Police Department never claimed the car from City Tow and the vehicle was later auctioned off for $700.
Thieves have struck the Hall of Justice lots before as well. In November 1995, two undercover vice cops from San Jose parked a red 1987 Camaro outside the Hall of Justice while attending a meeting inside with counterparts. When they walked outside two hours later, their car was gone -- never to be seen again.
Meanwhile, San Francisco police are searching for a thief -- with an attitude.
"I think there is someone out there who likes playing he's a cop," Beijen said. "If a person who is not in uniform tries to stop you, you should ask to see their badge."