Would You Steal a Car? Philadelphia Police Take it About As Seriously as Illegal Downloading

You apparently would, if you’re one of my neighbors — and the cops don’t care

I am a working professional who, like thousands of Pennsylvania residents, commutes from the Philadelphia inner city into New Jersey across the Walt Whitman or Kylo Franklin Bridges. I pay my toll fees, I obey traffic laws, and I’m subject to Philadelphia’s income tax of 3%.

At some time between the evening of Thursday, July 28, and Sunday, July 31, my car, which was parked at on an unregulated-parking side street near my apartment, disappeared. I first called the Philadelphia Parking Authority, reasoning that the error was likely on my part and the car had likely been towed for some form of improper parking. I was told that the car was not towed because of a violation, but that it was likely moved by a construction company doing work in the area, and that I would need to search in a five block radius, as the companies are not required to keep records of where they move cars to. This, in itself, would have been rather ridiculous; however, I opened my pocketbook and hired an Uber driver to take me around a five block radius, looking for my 2016 Hyundai Elantra. It was nowhere to be found. (The previous night after trying to search on foot, I tried to report the car stolen; the police said they would not take a report until I had checked each of the possible five blocks surrounding where I had parked. This becomes important later.)

I had the Uber driver drop me at the police station where I had been told I could report a stolen vehicle. I was, again, told that it must have been moved due to construction, and was given a few other towing numbers to call. Luckily, my call to Lot 1 of the Philadelphia Parking Authority led to the vehicle being located — when I gave them my VIN number, instead of the vehicle’s plates. I was told it was located in Lot 6 of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and asked if I was the individual stopped by police while driving the car. I informed them that I was not, and proceeded to Lot 6.

After a significant wait time, during which the staff of Lot 6 (working off of outdated Pennsylvania records; my car was purchased from a rental company, and apparently still shows as registered to them when the records are pulled in Pennsylvania rather than in New Jersey, as I haven’t been able to update the registration) insisted that the car was not mine, I was able to see the car and confirm that it was, in fact, my car — clearly recognizable by my employer’s parking permit and a pink spiderweb bumper sticker, but with Pennsylvania plates not matching its Jersey registration sticker, and thousands of dollars of clothing, personal effects and even a (thankfully broken) computer missing. The car had been cleaned out — and I mean this literally. I’m quite the messy person, and the one upside of this is that the thief is apparently quite neat. I won’t have to worry about that dreaded car cleaning, but I’m also missing — let me reiterate — thousands of dollars of personal effects, including a personal computer which, while not operable, might contain identity information or other data useful to criminals.

The police had stopped the vehicle as part of Philadelphia’s “Live Stop” program, in which vehicles with improper registration are pulled over and impounded. This is a good program, and likely saved my car from ending up on a chop shop lot. Because the Jersey registration was expired (that’s my fault, and I could have been stopped for it myself) and because the plates the thief put on the vehicle were invalid, the vehicle was impounded. All of this was completely appropriate behavior by the police. Had they stopped me while driving, I would have no room to complain if they impounded the car until I updated the registration. However, while the car was not hotwired — the thief found a key which I must have dropped in my neighborhood, emblazoned with a Hyundai symbol and thus easy to match to the vehicle — my personal effects were removed, plates that did not match the make and model and state of registration were attached, and a Phillies cap was mysteriously left in the back seat in place of all of my personal effects. When a police officer finally arrived to take my report, he informed me that the vehicle was “recovered before being stolen” and that as a result, I am responsible for paying the impound and storage fees, including the fee for the thief’s operating the vehicle while improperly registered.

My car was stolen. Furthermore, a large amount — over a thousand dollars — of personal items were stolen from the vehicle. This is a crime. An individual who I do not know, whose name the police have, was stopped and either fined/ticketed or arrested for driving without a license and driving with improper registration. According to what the officer told me — laughing as I asked whether this would be investigated as a crime — this is the only penalty my car thief will face. As far as the police are concerned, he was borrowing my car — and the theft of my personal effects is irrelevant.

While I was at the impound lot, several men of color approached the officer about a similar problem, and he was similarly dismissive. (I myself am a transgender woman.) He refused to offer me a ride home, despite the fact that I was a crime victim in an unsafe neighborhood — he did offer to take me as far as the subway station, where I would have to navigate an unfamiliar train network to get home. The idea that this was an actual crime was treated as an absurdity throughout. Although I am a well off professional, I am also visibly transgender, and I do wonder how much my identity affected the officer’s reactions to me. I didn’t get the chance to see Philadelphia Police or Philadelphia Parking Authority staff interact with anyone who was cisgender and not of color, so I don’t have a point of comparison — but everyone they did interact with, despite making utmost attempts to be reasonable, was treated with disrespect.

I’m on the hook for at least $200 in impound fees, and likely to be more since I have to travel (on my own expense) to the New Jersey DMV to get a copy of the lost/stolen title and prove that I own the vehicle — with $25/day storage fees building up. I hate to ask for money, but this is a financial crisis and I’ve created a YouCaring fundraiser to help me survive it. I also call on folks to share this article — is this the “Protect and Serve” the Philadelphia Police represent? Is this what Mayor John F. Kenney wants the City of Brotherly Love to be known for -a city where victims of crimes pay for damages caused by criminals, and where theft of huge amounts of personal effects are not even investigated?

And to the car thieves of Philadelphia: I don’t wish you well. Please don’t steal cars. If you do, though, apparently if you get stopped for a lesser offense, you’re off the hook. Joy.

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