Our short bio: We’re Lisa Gartner and Zack Sampson, reporters at the Tampa Bay Times. We just published several stories about how children who steal cars have become one of the biggest crime problems in our Florida county. Police here made almost 500 arrests for grand theft auto in one year, more than just about anywhere in America, including Miami and Los Angeles. The kids were as young as 10. They were too small to ride all the rides at the amusement park. But they sped 100+ mph, the wrong way on bridges, and crashed a lot. Some died. The kids told us their reasoning was simple: to have fun. One boy we wrote about, just 13, was considered the most dangerous kid on the street. Cops thought he had an AK-47. He was barely 100 pounds.

Link to the story




EDIT: We're humans. We need to go to lunch. We will come back after we're done and look for more questions in about an hour! Thanks for checking in.

EDIT TWO: Alright everyone, thanks so much for tuning in. There were quite a few great questions, and we enjoyed discussing the stories. We're at nearly eight hours, which is about our limit. Please keep reading!

Comments: 2491 • Responses: 47  • Date: 

raptureman1384 karma

You float in the story a couple of potential explanations (population density, public transportation issues), do either of you have any other pet theories to explain the car theft issue in Pinellas County?

zsampson1556 karma

We don't have any particular theories. We tried really hard in interviewing kids to find an origin or at least a time when this kicked off. But they described it in extremely plain terms. "It just happens," basically was the answer. We're planning to look further into this as we continue reporting out car theft. There's something to be said for the West Florida laid-back atmosphere and unlocked cars. Multiple official-type sources told us they thought people feel safe here and thus are less vigilant in locking up their stuff. I'm not sure that's true, but it's certainly interesting to consider. We read in police reports about victims saying much the same to police -- I thought my neighborhood was safe; I was gone just a minute.

As to pets, Lisa has a wonderful dog named Landon.

Domhnal312 karma

Part of discursive practice theory in anthropology is that the anthropologists tries for observation in lieu of personal testimony or psychology-type survey, the rationale being that just like many native speakers can't explain grammar, few "native" members of cultural can articulate rationale. Have you ever thought about an anthropological approach to your study? It'd be a tough subculture to penetrate, but I think of all people, delinquent children would be some of the least rational actors. As a side note, I'm sure there is a ton of good research out there in child delinquency and thrill seeking that might help give some perspective.

zsampson153 karma

Interesting! We do plan to follow up with another story possibly delving further into this line of thinking. Any recommendations for places/researchers to look at?

cobainbc151023 karma

Any idea what the average amount of money they make if they sell them? I'm sure a lot go for joy rides, but I wasn't sure how lucrative the stolen car market is...

zsampson1887 karma

Great q. First, they don't really take these to chop shops. If they sell a car, kids told us, they do so only after police have chased them and they know it's "hot." At that point, just get rid of it, right? So they might flip it for $20 or $30 to a friend or someone older who is desperate for a short-term means of transportation. Sometimes, they claim, they can get $100 or $200 off a car. But as you can see -- selling the vehicle is not really the point, it's an after-effect of the ride itself.

cobainbc15897 karma

Wow, that's really interesting! Seems like a whole lot of risk for seemingly no reward, besides adrenaline and street cred.

plumbtree607 karma

Well, when you consider that there really is no consequence to speak of, it's all reward.

cobainbc15354 karma

Part of their post at the top is showing about police arresting a lot of them. I'd think that's a consequence?

zsampson975 karma

It is, to some extent, but a lot of kids said they don't care about the arrest because they're often sent right back home. They laugh as the cuffs click shut. One girl asked police to take her through the McDonald's drive-thru. Several said they'd be right back out to do it again.

memphianoutwest944 karma

Is my truck really safer because it's a stick?

zsampson1325 karma

Yes -- almost certainly. We saw a case where the would-be thieves couldn't drive stick. Others involved some stalled cars.

flcm570 karma

What was it like talking to the kids? Were they shy or boastful or somewhere in between? What kinds of questions did you ask them?

zsampson1151 karma

It was strange to talk to the kids. I cover public safety/crime, but it's really atypical to speak to convicted people who are this young. I actually expected them to boast more, since this was seen as such a cool thing to do. But they generally undersold their history to us. They said they stole only a car or two, or didn't steal any at all, even when police records contradicted that. They said they never crashed (crashing is called "blowing it;" it's not cool). They didn't embellish their crimes, they diminished their history. And ultimately talking to them was like talking to pretty much any teenager. They were shy, they mumbled, they were slow to open up. They thought they could get one over on you. One of the most shocking moments was when a 15-year-old told me he'd never steal eyeglasses. I asked why, and he said "because people need the to see." They're smart kids, they're saavy, probably smarter than people give them credit for. But underneath it all they rarely had some profound reason for stealing a car. They spoke about it so plainly. It was just something to do.

lisagartner173 karma

It was pretty wild. Really depended on the kid - their personalities, and their situations - some were already in prison, really regretful, some were still out. I was surprised by how boastful some of the kids were, but it makes sense, you know? Acting tough. They get so much street cred from doing this, why not show that in their interviews? But yeah, some were definitely shyer. Trying to get a male teenager to open up is a difficulty for all time.

Fire_For_Effect105 karma

Your response is in direct contrast to zsimpson. Did you guys interview the kids separately or together? Could the young boys have been more boastful towards you because you are female?

zsampson75 karma

Some separately, some together. Could be a number of reasons. Some kids were boastful and some were sort of shy about it. Often the ones who expressed more remorse were more shy. It varied case by case.

AwwwComeOnLOU430 karma

Why do you think this particular county in Florida has so much higher of a car theft rate then other similar counties in similar regions?

zsampson679 karma

Good question! We asked a ton of people. Kids, law enforcement, judges, politicians. NO ONE had a clear answer. The most logical conclusion -- kids here have just latched onto it as a fad. Fads can be local. Once it becomes the "thing to do" in a particular place, it can spiral.

Our numbers are auto theft arrests, so they do show, in part, that cops here are really going after this particular crime. But all the evidence points to that being a legitimate reaction to the danger at hand.

AwwwComeOnLOU153 karma

Follow up question:

Are Tampa/Clearwater residences more likely to leave their cars unlocked w keys available?

zsampson191 karma

Interesting question. We haven't calculated location to car unlocked. We don't have broad data for Tampa but we do for Clearwater. Anecdotally, people leave their cars unlocked all across the county. There was never one area that stuck out to us as a place as having more unlocked cars. But I don't have specific numbers here, and maybe we'll look at this further as we continue to report on the problem. Thanks for the suggestion!

AwwwComeOnLOU69 karma

The article linked at the top was great. It suggested that the viral nature of social media seems to be a large component in the unusually high concentration of car thefts in the Tampa/Clearwater area.

is there one preferred social media platform that the kids are favoring or does it cross over?

zsampson82 karma

It definitely crosses over! But Facebook and Snapchat seem to be leaders.

iwas99x292 karma

Did you talk to the parents? If, so what did they say?

zsampson530 karma

We did talk to parents. Most of them were frustrated. They said their children did not respect the courts, which made it harder to get them to respect anything at home. They also said their kids always started the same way -- falling in with a bad crowd -- before they began committing crime.

egon0226233 karma

I'm a property crimes prosecutor. Our motor vehicle theft detectives and I have noticed a weird new trend. When the cars are recovered, a noticeable amount have had the rear view mirror removed. Theories range from the thieves are keeping them as trophies to they think there's some sort of tracking device in the mirrors, like onstar. It's a newer trend so we think it's younger thieves. Notice anything like that with your subjects? Opinions?

zsampson244 karma

We've heard of this and were told it's because they think there's GPS in the onstar mirrors. Haven't heard that from kids themselves though.

mollymoorhead196 karma

Did you find trends in the time of day that most cars were stolen -- mostly in the middle of the night or all times of day?

zsampson289 karma

Car theft happens in broad daylight and at night, but it's hard to track down the specific time of the theft. Speaking generally, many of them are reported in the morning, because people wake up to discover their car is gone. Then they call police. But police reports only say something like, Call time: 6:32. And then it'll say in the narrative, the car was likely stolen between the hours of 11 p.m. (the last time the victim saw it) and 6 a.m. (when they wake up to the horrifying shock of no car). A lot of kids certainly go carhopping at night, but if they spot a running, unattended car during the day or try a handle and strike gold, they're just as likely to take it at 3 p.m. as 3 a.m.

t3hdebater190 karma

Are people really leaving their guns in their cars unattended that often? What percentage of car thefts also include gun theft?

Besides changing sentencing, do you have any other potential solutions suggested by your sources?

zsampson222 karma

First -- yes, people leave their guns in their cars pretty often. More than you could imagine. We did not calculate an exact percentage of car thefts including guns because we looked specifically at police reports involving an auto theft arrest. If you looked at all auto burglaries, not just thefts, you'd likely turn up a lot more gun cases. But just in car thefts, we saw guns involved in some way in more than 50 cases. A decent chunk of those guns you can guess are stolen -- most 13 or 14 year olds in stolen carfs don't have legally-purchased Glocks.

Sources told us, aside from changing sentencing, they'd like to reach more kids/families with resources like counseling and mentoring. They said they believe this kind of juvenile crime overlaps with dependency issues, substance abuse, mental health problems -- and keeping kids/families involved in schools, support programs, etc. will help keep them away from crime. Of course, that's an unsurprising response. Actually fixing that problem, or determining who provides those resources, and how, brings less clarity.

FuzionLolliz162 karma

What do you think mostly influenced them to do this other than to have fun?

zsampson296 karma

Good question. There are a lot of factors at play, but social pressure is a big one. They do it to hang out, to be cool, to gain popularity. A lot of them post pictures to Facebook or statuses about being "on wheels."

Car theft is a crime of opportunity, too. Many of the kids are those who don't otherwise have access to cars or, they say, the money to entertain themselves. One boy told us, simply, "We have to make our own fun."

Lastly -- access: It's super easy to steal a car when you find it unlocked with a key inside. So the simplicity is appealing. Then when they get caught, they're often released right back home. Then they do it again. They get sent home again. It takes a while for consequences to catch up to them, critics say, and that enables more thefts.

stoleacarama96 karma

Former child car thief checking in.

Have you guys talked to any older ex-thieves to get more clarifying answers on why kids steal cars?

zsampson85 karma

We haven't reached a ton of older thieves but it's something we've looked at and will possibly keep trying to do. The interesting thing is a lot of older thieves stole cars with screwdrivers/forced entry. The crime today is a little less technical, and some different people are doing it. You from the area?

Izup6976 karma

We have also locally seen a giant rise in car thefts in the area. 250 reported thefts in 2017 in a city of 150,000 These are also attributed to minors. Do you think this is becoming an epidemic in the US ? What do you think we as peers can do to curb this in minors ?

zsampson72 karma

Interesting! Where is your area? I don't think we've seen evidence to suggest this is a nationwide epidemic. One other area in which we've read a lot about an uptick in juvenile car theft is Milwaukee. The local media there has covered it extensively, and it seems pretty similar to our situation in Pinellas. What can we do to curb this in minors? Everyone we talked to -- politicians, police, judges -- said they did not have a single, perfect fix. But they said in general, keeping kids involved in more positive activities -- school, sports, clubs, mentoring -- will give them less time to act out. That seems like such a simple concept, but several of the teens we talked to said they did in fact start stealing cars or getting into trouble when they began cutting class or stopped playing on a local team.

Izup6945 karma

I live in the Midwest. The city I'm talking about is Davenport, Iowa. The news sites around here are aggressively pushing the issue in the media. The police had put out a notice around 2 months ago that they had seen a huge jump in car thefts and had advised everyone to keep their cars locked at all times.

zsampson37 karma

Thanks -- that's something we'll take a look at. Do people seem to be locking their cars more, now?

mcaustic3 karma

Maybe ban these kids from getting driver's licenses.

zsampson27 karma

Sometimes they do struggle to get a license eventually because they'll have unpaid court fees/fines. But they've already shown they'll drive without a license, so unclear how much of a deterrent that is.

iwas99x69 karma

Do you think some or many of these kids can be reformed if they are sorry and have the network to help them?

zsampson78 karma

Interesting question. Kids are young, their brains are still developing. That's established. So the guiding philosophy in Florida juvenile justice circles is that everyone can be reformed. No child is lost or beyond hope. The network to help them? That gets more complicated. Many come from difficult circumstances. Most sources we talk to said that network is the biggest struggle -- getting resources and support to children who need it most.

iwas99x63 karma

Are local politicians and law enforcement embarrassed about the story?

zsampson99 karma

Embarassed might not be the right word. They told us they were shocked, a bit horrified. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist had a pithy statement: “This is not who we are as a community. It’s reckless and it’s criminal." He said he wanted “to put an end to this madness.”

aknightcalledfrog53 karma

How did you first approach these kids?

zsampson80 karma

Many different ways. Some we cold-called. Some we met after court. Some we met on police ridealongs. Some we requested interviews with in jail, which is a process. When we sat down to talk to them, we tried to keep it simple, to let them talk, to just hear what they had to say. There's a question above about what it was like to talk to the kids. Most of them were pretty bright. They were more than capable of explaining themselves and talking to adults. They've spent a long time in the very confusing criminal justice system and in many ways have mastered its intricacies. Every interview was interesting.

redorhcal46 karma

Do y'all know of any plans by current FL legislators to fix this law, or at make the penalties for carjacking as a minor more stiff?

This article was really well done, your hard work is appreciated!

zsampson45 karma

Yes, actually! Legislators have been moving a bill that aims to try kids deemed "prolific juvenile offenders" more quickly and to keep them detained or on an ankle monitor until they're sentenced. It's an attempted fix at a small part of this. And thank you! See more: http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/how-state-leaders-are-trying-to-fix-the-juvenile-car-theft-problem-in/2321579/

merlin25243 karma

Do people really leave their car keys in their cars in 2017? I feel like this doesn't happen in the UK, outside of perhaps isolated Scottish islands and the like...

zsampson47 karma

Yes they very much do. That happened in 250 cases here in 18 months. It probably happens more than you think!

iwas99x41 karma

Is the Dress Code at the newspaper camping attire? Your shirts make me think so, is it true?

zsampson131 karma

The newsroom is a tent. It's part of a new strategy to be mobile and nimble in the fast-paced digital world.

Patthias34 karma

Do the kids that do this.usually have enough information to realize how dangerous they are when they do steal and drive a car ?

zsampson76 karma

They know that people crash cars. They know that people get hurt in them. But they told us they're not really thinking about the danger when they take the car. Kids feel invincible, right? We say that all the time. Mortality or injury aren't often at the front of their minds. So when they're behind the wheel, they said, it's all adrenaline. It's cool. And if a cop gets behind them? They said they'll speed the wrong way. They'll hop a curb. They'll do whatever it takes. Because at that point their mind is on one thing, getting away. It's not so much they don't have the information as it isn't a big factor in their decision-making, from what they told us. They don't think anything bad will happen to them, and an arrest isn't that bad -- they don't fear it.

NeuroCore22 karma

This is all so interesting. How did you get an in with this kids? How did you get them to trust you?

It sounds like many of the factors that go into why this happens is similar to why you see children getting into trouble in lots of inner-city, high density areas. Do you have any ideas for communities to take steps to reduce this type of crime and provide other outlets?

zsampson26 karma

To the first part, we pretty much just asked them if they'd like to talk. I know that may sound ridiculous, but a lot of it was asking, being told no; asking, being told no; and so on. There were so many kids, we thought some of them would probably speak with us. And they did. Sometimes the kids were trying to change their ways and wanted to warn others. Sometimes they just were willing to talk. They didn't always trust us, but part of it was showing them we knew what we were talking about. We spent months researching, understanding this, building a database. We were able to demonstrate knowledge, to show that we understood and were genuinely interested in their side, and that helped build trust.

There are certainly some similar factors. I think everyone is looking for ideas and ways for communities to stop these problems. Good schools, social programs, opportunities -- that's always the answer. But still a lot of people need help or support.

katie_veg19 karma

If this has been a significant problem for the St Pete police for years, why hasn't anything been done legislatively to address the lenient sentencing?

zsampson35 karma

Also -- the trend in juvenile justice reform for the last decade has generally been to keep more kids out of detention centers and less incarceration. More toward in-community treatment. It's a swinging pendulum. And auto theft is a property crime, right? So it's not something politicians tend to talk about as much as violent crime, crimes against people. Property crime is often lower on the agenda, seen as less bad. But clearly here it's extremely dangerous.

EdwardMowinckel17 karma

Hey man, a different question; This article clearly took a shitload of work, if we want to be scientific we can say it took a "Metric shitload" of work.

With how difficult it is to source, cite, find, and corroborate all of this information, and with the contrary, low effort opinion pieces, getting a lot of buzz, how the hell do we rejuvenate journalism on a large scale when the major news outlets in the states seem to be actively working against it? And what's your opinion of how the biggest news outlets with the largest reaches approach the dissemination of information?

zsampson23 karma

Hey interesting question. I'm sure a lot of journalists could talk on this for hours over a few beers. This did take a lot of work. I think the important thing we've seen is that readers really value long takes and accountability work. This story gets plenty of buzz, too, but part of the dilemma is defining value. At the Times, editors place a lot of emphasis on watchdog journalism, which sometimes involves projects like this. There's value in that, people really do read those stories and sometimes they lead to positive changes. Buzz or not, any impact in that sense -- a change that improves a dangerous situation -- is what we hope for. Sure, that sounds grandiose, but I think that's what a lot of reporters are after. I think anyone with a big platform or a mission of informing the public should be striving for accuracy and relevance.

iwas99x14 karma

What is the next big story you two are working on?

lisagartner40 karma

We are really interested in doing something involving goats.

NDaveT29 karma

Funny you should say that. Here in Saint Paul, Minnesota the city has started renting goats to use as weed control on some public lands. The local press can't get enough of it.

zsampson21 karma

I used to live/work in Boston and they did that there too!

itslieutenantcolumbo3 karma

If you had the funds to implement one social program in the community, what do you think would help these kids grow up to be successful?

zsampson8 karma

I'd need weeks to think about this, it's a huge question. Not trying to dodge it. I think more than likely you need A LOT of programs, not just one.

superkbf3 karma

What is the gender distribution of the kids you interviewed? What is your sense of the gender distribution among the car-stealing kids overall?

zsampson5 karma

From above --

Of the 742 arrests we examined, 99 -- or 13% -- were for females. We had a handful of chronic offenders who were girls: In the 18-month window we examined, two females were arrested four or more times for GTA. Numbers point to most of the kids being boys overall.

Urdnot_wrx2 karma

can they drive standard transmission?

zsampson4 karma

Many cannot!

lilithiyapo1 karma

It's very interesting to see St. Pete/Pinellas make it to reddit. I was discussing your article with someone who is also originally from the area and it boggled our minds that so many people not only leave their cars unlocked, but even leave spare keys in them. We could think of no one one we knew who was from St. Pete that would do that. St. Pete is great, but it's no super safe small town. Do you think that older snowbirds, tourists and other transplants fall victim more so than natives?

zsampson2 karma

Snowbirds and tourists definitely are victims sometimes, but we didn't see any evidence that this was at a disproportionate rate. We have a lot of transplants, tough to track. But I think you'd be surprised how many people leave keys in their car! Especially with the newer fobs/push starts. Not having to physically put the metal in the ignition can make it easier to not even think of your keys. It could be forgetfulness, or laziness, or just plain feeling safe. Thank you for reading the stories!

StrangeCaptain-1 karma


zsampson6 karma

It's a state.

Dont_Get_Upsetti-7 karma

What's it like living in a country that cannot provide clean drinking water to all of its citizens?

zsampson7 karma

Interesting way to kick this off. It's bad to not have clean drinking water for all citizens. Did you expect a different response?