Declan McGarry knew something was wrong when his wife asked where he’d parked his car one morning last month.
McGarry’s eyes darted to the spot on his street in East Nashville where’d left his 2005 black Nissan Pathfinder the night before. It wasn’t there.
“Immediately I just went to, 'Oh, great, our car has been stolen,' ” he said.
A week later, McGarry’s still in disbelief.
“I guess we’re all somewhat naive that something could happen to us until it does happen,” he said. “It’s an inconvenience and it’s a violating feeling.”
McGarry can’t remember if he locked his car that night. He’s also not sure if there was a valet key buried somewhere inside the SUV’s cluttered glove compartment.
Police hear this story all the time.
Car thefts in Nashville have more than doubled in recent years. This year, nearly 1,300 vehicles have already been stolen so far. And almost three-quarters of those stolen cars had a set of keys inside.
It’s a source of frustration for police, who say it’s up to car owners to bring those numbers down.
“I think we live in a microwave society where people want things easy and convenient,” said Sergeant Chad Young, who investigates auto theft for Metro Police. “They may leave a key in the vehicle for whatever reason. They may go out to start the car in the morning to cool it off or to heat it up and sometimes that puts them at risk.”
Young says it doesn’t help that lots of cars have on/off buttons that make them easier to steal when left running. And as the city grows, more valets and car dealerships are also at risk, he says.
These car thefts have increased despite repeated messaging from police about how to prevent them.
Nashville police have urged residents to keep their cars locked, without any valuables, guns or keys inside. They send out weekly emails with the number of cars stolen, and recently started listing the growing number of guns taken from those cars.
A recent NPR investigation found reports of guns taken from vehicles in Nashville grew 70% between 2016 and 2018. More than 300 firearms have already been stolen from cars this year, according to Nashville Police.
As car thefts persist, the department is trying out new ways to reach car owners. Earlier this month, they even released a slightly cheesy PSA video, featuring Young.
A car thief donning all black lurks behind Young in a convenience store parking lot and sneaks into an SUV left running unattended. While the thief backs up and zooms away, the officer reminds viewers, “If you think it can’t happen to you, think again.”
Young says about 80% of stolen cars are eventually recovered. But they’re often used for other crimes in the meantime.
So when drivers leave their cars unlocked, he says, everyone is at risk.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.