Crime scene tape
Crime scene tape (Associated Press file)

A spike in car thefts drove a 3.6 percent increase in property crime throughout Colorado last year, but violent crime dropped 3.4 percent, according to statistics released this week by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Police departments across the state reported a 9.2 percent increase in motor vehicle thefts in 2012 compared with the year before, a troubling increase that investigators Tuesday struggled to explain.

Among the most popular cars for thieves in Colorado, according to experts: Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Chevrolet trucks, Acura Integra and Jeep Cherokee.

There were 11,947 vehicles stolen in Colorado last year, up from 10,938 the year before, according to CBI's Crime in Colorado report, which chronicles the offenses reported to the state's police agencies. While many departments saw an increase in car thefts, Colorado Springs saw the largest jump in 2012, a 52 percent increase to 1,785 from 1,173 in 2011, according to CBI.

"It's just something we're seeing from Colorado all the way to California," said Aurora police Sgt. Stephen Redfearn of the East Metro Auto Theft Team. Car thefts rose 3.6 percent in Aurora, from 872 to 904, marking the first increase in at least five years. Aurora police saw major drops in the years since officers started taking thieves to municipal court, which can carry stiffer penalties than district court. So the recent rise was perplexing.

"We can't really attribute it to one factor or another," Redfearn said. "There's not one major reason that we can pinpoint."

Motor vehicle thefts showed the greatest increase of any property crime category statewide, although there were smaller increases in both burglary and larceny. Nationwide, property crime fell 0.8 percent last year, according to FBI data.

Violent crime throughout the country rose 1.2 percent from 2011 to 2012, but Colorado saw a 3.4 percent decrease, according to the CBI report. The data is made up of submissions of crime statistics from 252 police departments across the state, and there are small discrepancies between CBI statistics and those kept by the agencies themselves. A CBI spokeswoman said the differences could exist because police departments had not finished counting certain offenses by the state's April reporting deadline.

In Denver, the CBI stats show overall crime increased 3.7 percent in 2012 compared with 2011, which included a 4.3 percent jump in assaults and a 5.7 percent increase in burglaries. Those numbers closely resemble statistics provided by Denver police, but they are at odds with numbers released last month by the FBI. Those figures showed, for example, that violent crime in Denver fell 3.6 percent in 2012. There were 28 homicides in the city last year by the FBI's count, but 39 according to the CBI data.

The Denver Police Department has said it is working to address the differences between its data and the FBI's, which it said were largely the result of software glitches and officer error.

CBI data show auto thefts in Denver rose 3.2 percent last year, from 3,588 in 2011 to 3,703 in 2012.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau said in its annual report last month that the 13 states in its West region saw a 10.6 percent rise in vehicle thefts from 2011. Other regions reported reductions.

Car thieves are often fueling methamphetamine addictions, said Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Rich Smith, who runs the Auto Theft Intelligence Coordination Center in Lakewood, which tracks the crime and helps police departments analyze and investigate it.

He said last year's increase — as well as an 18 percent increase so far this year — underscores the need for police agencies to share information as quickly as thefts happen.

"Every agency has made it a higher priority," Smith said.

But Redfearn said it is just as important that owners be vigilant. In several cases, he said, thieves have confessed to randomly tugging at car doors and luckily stumbling upon a driver's spare key in the unlocked vehicle. Others discover them during garage and home burglaries.

"We tell victims never, never, never leave your spare key in your car," he said. "These folks are pretty savvy."

Sadie Gurman: 303-954-1661, sgurman@denverpost.com or twitter.com/sgurman