Car thefts on the rise in South Central

closeup of car with hood torn out
Hana Feingold had her 2014 Kia Soul stolen in a USC-owned parking lot this past summer. A tow company found the vehicle the next day, with sections cut out and a window shattered for entry. (Photo courtesy of Hana Feingold)

Car thefts around Los Angeles hit the gas last year with a reported 25,400 stolen vehicles, a 4% increase over the previous year. Nationwide, car theft rose by roughly 7% in 2022, a number set to be broken again in 2023.

The issue is especially prevalent throughout South Central, including the immediate area surrounding USC. Despite the University’s security efforts, vehicles parked on and around campus are not immune. Since January, 129 cases of vehicle theft have been reported in the Los Angeles Police Department’s southwest region — an 11% increase from last year’s 115 thefts within the same timeframe. 

According to open data made available by GeoHub, an online repository operated by the city of L.A., vehicle thefts were the second most reported crime in the last decade in the Exposition Park neighborhood encompassing the University, only outclassed by petty theft. When ranked, South Central placed sixth most for car theft around the city last year at 695 incidents. Neighboring Downtown, Boyle Heights, and Koreatown placed first, second and fourth respectively. 

Daniel Palmore, a sophomore majoring in journalism, returned to his vehicle damaged after an attempted burglary at the USC Shrine Structure last semester.

“I saw a mark on my window like some kind of stain … When I kept touching it I eventually heard the glass start to shatter as if it was gonna break and then the whole thing just shattered,” Palmore said. 

After further review by the Department of Public Safety, officers concluded the perpetrator attempted to enter the vehicle by burning through the window. Palmore said his roommate, who was unavailable for comment, also experienced an attempted break-in while keeping his vehicle parked in the same structure earlier that semester.

Hana Feingold, a junior majoring in international relations and human security and geospatial intelligence, had her 2014 Kia Soul stolen in a USC-owned parking structure on 28th Street this past summer. After reporting the vehicle stolen to DPS and the LAPD, Feingold said she was told to expect little to no recourse. 

“A lot of cars get stolen around here,” Feingold said an officer told her. “The chances that we find your car are very low.”

A tow company recovered Feingold’s vehicle the next day. Sections of the vehicle were cut out or removed, and a window shattered for entry. 

Feingold is one of many who have had their Kia or Hyundai stolen throughout the United States, in what online communities have dubbed he “Kia Challenge.” In a viral series of TikTok videos, the creators demonstrate how to override and start a Kia’s ignition system with only a USB port. Targeted vehicles include Hyundais from 2015 to 2021 and Kias from 2011 to 2012. 

One contributing factor to the high number of thefts is the lack of CCTV cameras around campus. Lot 27 is one of many parking lots without cameras in and around campus. 

Merton Li, a junior majoring in business administration, came back to find his car damaged after he had left it in the Downey Way parking structure on campus two weeks ago. Despite Downey’s prime location on campus, the garage features only one CCTV camera at the entrance. In a 2016 University of Tennessee study, researchers concluded that CCTV surveillance is effective in reducing car theft within parking garages. 

In a statement to the Daily Trojan Thursday, DPS Assistant Chief David Carlisle confirmed there is only one camera in the garage. 

“DPS regularly patrols the structures in both cars and on bicycles,” the statement read. “There are relatively few car thefts and car break-ins on campus.”

Carlisle instead attributed the rise in motor vehicle theft to incidents involving motorized scooters, which DPS also classifies as motor vehicles. 

Some students said they still believe more security measures should be in place.

“If they have money to construct a new building [Ginsburg Hall, for the Viterbi School of Engineering] … they should be able to implement a simple camera system for each floor [of a parking garage],” Li said. 

Li, Palmore and Feingold all said their experiences have changed the way they handled their vehicles within the area. Li said he now avoids parking at USC entirely.

“I usually try to park my car now where there are people around,” Palmore said, “so that if someone is trying to mess with my car, someone will at least be there to see it and maybe report that it’s happening.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Carlisle’s occupation. He is currently the assistant chief at the Department of Public Safety, not the interim executive director/chief. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.