The chaotic aftermath of a high-speed chase between local police and a man who stole an officer’s patrol car is a scene that Roseville Police Department Officer Dan Wanamaker says has stayed in his mind over the years.
The incident played out on a newscast in the 1990s and happened just a few years after Wanamaker began his career as a patrol officer, he said.
“I remember watching that and thinking, ‘We need a better way to secure our cars because someone can get hurt,’ ” he said. “The biggest scare for me is there’s a rifle in there, so you want to make sure everything’s locked up.”
The Roseville Police Department is among a small group made up of local law enforcement agencies and fire departments that have either adopted anti-theft tools or implemented specific policies to prevent car thieves from making away with department vehicles.
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Though rare, instances of fleeing suspects using a patrol car as a getaway vehicle, or a passerby seizing an opportunity to take a cop cruiser on a joyride, do happen.
Such was the case in south Sacramento last week, when Zachary Samaha, 22, allegedly sped off with a Sacramento Police Department patrol car while officers responded to a call in the area of Stockton Boulevard and Riza Avenue near Florin around 7:17 p.m. and left the car unattended, the department said.
The car was spotted by Chris Marzan, a bystander who said the police vehicle crashed into a telephone pole before stopping at an apartment and then pulling into the parking lot of the A-1 Market Liquor. Marzan recorded the events using a dashboard camera and recounted his experience to the Public Safety News Network, a social media-based news site.
Realizing the car was stolen and not being driven by an officer, Marzan made a citizen’s arrest until police came and detained who they identified as Samaha. The 22-year-old faces three felony charges in connection the incident, including theft of an law enforcement or emergency vehicle and possession of a firearm by a felon, Sacramento County Superior Court records show.
The Sacramento Police Department is reviewing how they can avoid a similar situation to the one that played out in south Sacramento, said Officer Linda Matthew, a department spokeswoman. She declined to go into detail about what type of security features the department’s patrol cars have, and said that the city’s fleet management division oversees the department’s vehicles.
A city spokeswoman listed as the point-person for information about Sacramento’s fleet division did not return a call to The Sacramento Bee.
“We have different vehicles that are assigned to different units in the department that all have different locking features in it,” Matthew said. “We are certainly revisiting what we can do better to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff’s deputy, said the Sacramento incident is unusual when compared to what he’s seen in his 27-year career in law enforcement.
“The more common scenario, when cars have been taken, hasn’t been on a dare, it’s really because of people who want to escape,” he said. “We’re not talking about being drunk, we’re talking about a conscious decision to take the car.”
While there’s no official statistics on how often patrol cars are stolen from officers, Tremco Police Products, a company that advertises an anti-theft system for patrol cars, has cataloged six incidents from across the country involving stolen patrol cars in the first 11 days of 2018 alone, including the Sacramento event.
News reports of more than 120 similar thefts, including both marked and unmarked police vehicles, were listed by the company in 2017.
Obayashi said it’s not rare for officers to keep their car running while conducting a traffic stop or if they step out to speak to someone on the street and they’re within eyesight of the vehicle. As a general rule, officers are told to use common sense in all situations and do not typically leave their car unlocked while unattended.
He said it was also important to remember that officers sometimes have to quickly respond to a developing situation, and might not have time to lock their car door if they have to chase after a fleeing suspect.
“Officers are trained to be aware, pay attention,” Obayashi said. “But you don’t expect someone to jump in your police car.”
Roseville Police and the Elk Grove Police Department have both modified their cars with activation switches or buttons that keep the car running without a key. The tool allows officers to remove their keys from their ignition while keeping the engine running, but locks the car’s shift on park or turns off the engine if someone without a key tries to drive away.
Wanamaker, who has overseen the building of the department’s patrol cars since 2011, says he chose to add the feature to the police fleet after seeing the department could afford to and weighing the tool’s benefit to patrol officers. The activation button serves as an added security measure, but also ensures the car’s electronics, such as a computer, radio, or sirens, don’t drain the battery while an officer is away.
“A good example of this would be a vehicle collision scene,” said Officer Jason Jimenez, an Elk Grove Police Department spokesman. “The patrol vehicle’s overhead lights are needed for traffic control and the officer is out of the vehicle rendering aid or investigating the collision.”
The Elk Grove Police Department paid about $400 to $450 per vehicle to include the feature to 37 of the department’s patrol cars, Jimenez said. Wanamaker said Roseville paid about half the price.
Modifying a car to include all the specialized police gear can cost as much as the vehicle itself, Wanamaker said.
The Folsom Police Department takes a different approach, giving officers duplicate keys so they can leave the cars, and the equipment that comes with it, running but still secure, said Sgt. Andrew Bates, a department spokesman.
The Sacramento Fire Department has had two incidents in recent years in which department ambulances were stolen while parked at hospitals, said Chris Harvey, a department spokesman.
In the more recent case, a man was arrested after allegedly driving away from the Sutter Medical Center in a fire department ambulance and leading police on a pursuit in November 2016. He eventually crashed the vehicle while on Highway 99 and was booked into jail on suspicion of evading a police officer while driving recklessly, vehicle theft and driving under the influence of a drug.
The result was a policy requiring drivers of department ambulances to lock the emergency vehicle doors once they’ve arrived to a hospital and taken the patient inside, Harvey said.