Austin, Texas auto thefts rose in October, continuing a rising trend in the crime category since the city’s police department was defunded by the mayor and city council in August 2020.

The Austin Police Department has compiled a report each month since Jan. 1, 2020 after becoming a National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) reporting agency on Jan. 1, 2019, allowing one year to collect a year’s worth of data.

During the month of October 2023, the report showed there were 575 auto thefts, up from 403 during the same period in 2022, which represents a 43% increase.

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Compared to 2020 – the same year the Austin City Council defunded the department – the number of auto thefts increased 58%, with 363 vehicle thefts occurring that year.

The data also shows a 32% year-over-year increase of auto thefts when comparing data from October 2022 to October 2023, with 5,633 taking place so far this year.

The APD’s auto theft interdiction team told KXAN that some of the auto thefts were likely part of the “Kia Challenge,” which circulated on social media earlier this year.

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Austin, Texas skyline

The challenge has thieves exploiting a “design vulnerability” in vehicles made by Kia and Hyundai, making it easier for the vehicles to be stolen, police said.

As part of the challenge, thieves rip apart the steering column to expose wiring, use a USB drive to somehow start the vehicle, then drive away.

APD told the station that one way to deter criminals is to purchase a locking bar and place it on the steering wheel. Another is to just never leave car keys or valuables inside the vehicle.

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Austin

When the department began compiling the Chief’s Monthly Report in 2020, the Austin City Council slashed police cadet classes as part of the budget cuts, sending staffing on a trajectory that some say will take well over 10 years to get back to where the department was a few years ago.

Certain task forces within the department were eliminated because of staffing issues, leaving some classes of crime largely ignored, and resulting in police announcing they had to stop responding to non-emergencies. As such, Austin set an all-time record for homicides in 2021 and police morale cratered. The state legislature later forced the city to restore the cut funding, but by then the damage was done as officers left in huge numbers and were not replaced. 

In 2021, 210 police officers left the force, and at the beginning of 2023, the department had 259 vacancies, 230 of which were patrol positions.

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