MARLBORO – In a bid to address the spike in car thefts around New Jersey, the state will spend $10 million in federal aid to help more police departments obtain automatic license plate readers, which are already common in many of the state’s cities.

There were 14,320 vehicles stolen in New Jersey last year, the most since 2012. Data collection isn’t complete but the first quarter of this year is on track to have 37% more stolen cars than the same period in 2021 and 53% more than the same period in 2020, state officials said.

The money comes from the state’s allotment from the American Rescue Plan for COVID recovery. The ARP's State Fiscal Recovery Fund comes with few strings attached and can be spent in ways that aren’t directly related to responding to the virus.

“We’re going to put it to use to ensure our suburban police departments have the tools they need to keep our communities safe from crime,” Gov. Phil Murphy said.

“You can’t put a price tag on the feeling of security, but we know these dollars are a worthwhile investment,” Murphy said.

The high-speed, automated camera systems capture and store computer-readable images of license plates in a centralized database accessible to law enforcement. The technology will be installed at both fixed locations and mounted on mobile units.

“According to the data that we have from the State Police, these stolen vehicles are not always, in fact often are not isolated incidents,” said acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin. “They’re increasingly linked to other serious crimes, in particular shootings.”

“This is a threat to our state’s safety,” Platkin said.

Some of the money will go toward the New Jersey State Police to deploy cameras along major roadways. The remaining money will go toward grants awarded through a competitive process to county and local law enforcement agencies, which must share license plate information with the State Police.

Platkin said that last month, detectives, prosecutors and more local police departments were added to a State Police auto theft task force. The state is allocating $125,000 in federal Justice Assistance Grant funds to the task force, as well.

Platkin also announced changes to his office’s vehicular pursuit policy, after hearing concerns from police officials. Pursuits will be allowed at least through the end of 2022 based on the commission of several additional crimes, including car theft and receiving a stolen vehicle, as well as unlawful weapon possession, possession of a gun or explosive device for an unlawful purpose, burglary of a home and bias intimidation.

The Assembly members from the 13th District, Assemblywoman Victoria Flynn and Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger, both R-Monmouth, said they had written to Platkin last week questioning the directive that took effect at the end of 2021 limiting police pursuits. Flynn called Friday's announcement "a step in the right direction" but said there's more to do.

"This criminal utopia created by the administration needs to come to an end before it is too late," Flynn said.

Scharfenberger said that under rules preventing police from chasing suspected car thieves, "criminals confidently smile at the police and go on their merry way with their stolen property."

Marlboro Mayor Jonathan Hornik said that between 2018 and 2021, between 27 and 30 cars were stolen in the township. So far this year, 30 cars have already been stolen.

“And the thefts have been coming more brazen. They’re happening in daylight, while people are unloading groceries and taking them in,” Hornik said. “And this is something that is completely unacceptable in Marlboro and in suburban towns in New Jersey.”

Officials said in most of the car thefts statewide, people are leaving their key jobs in their vehicles.

“Don’t leave your key fobs in the darn car,” Murphy said.

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“This isn’t just anecdotal. The overwhelming majority of stolen vehicles in the state have key fobs inside,” Platkin said. “It turns out if you have a new vehicle, your car is really hard to steal – unless you leave the key fob in it. Then it’s remarkably easy to steal.

“So, if there’s anything the public can do to stop this, it’s take your key fobs at home,” he said. “That minor inconvenience will save you a major inconvenience when your car is still there in the morning. I promise you.”

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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