PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) - Car thefts in Portland have increased dramatically over the past several years, reaching what officers on the street call "epidemic" levels.
In 2017, car thefts increased from just under 6,000 the year before to more than 8,000.
In 2018, there were more than 7,500 reported thefts.
"It's been described to me by numerous car thieves as like a game," said Officer Justin Raphael, who works patrol in east and southeast Portland. "They consider being able to steal cars like collecting trophies. Almost like a real-life Grand Theft Auto video game."
It doesn't feel like a game to the victims of those thefts.
Katrina Palmer, a single mother of two, had her car stolen while she was at work near the Portland International Airport.
"I just can't believe that someone just got into my vehicle and took off," said Palmer. "You definitely feel like a victim. Because, like what did you do to deserve this?"
Raphael said thieves these days often target older model cars, especially Hondas, Subarus, and Toyotas, using old keys that are sometimes filed down to gain entry and turn over the ignition system.
Often, Raphael said, the thieves have ties to street gangs or the criminal underworld.
"We see stolen cars that are used to commit a burglary, commit a robbery. Used to move drugs from one location to the other," said Raphael.
Making matters worse, thieves that are caught red-handed aren't guaranteed jail time.
"From numbers that I've looked at recently, we're probably successful around 25 percent of the time," said Kevin Demer, a prosecutor with the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office who specializes in car theft cases.
Demer said a court ruling in 2014 changed the way Oregon law is interpreted, and now forces prosecutors to prove in court that a suspect knew the car they were driving was stolen.
"And they share information," said Demer. "Sometimes we get the same lie, verbatim, from different people about who they got the car from."
The end result is often a thief back out on the street, looking for the next victim.
"And when they get stolen, not only does it interrupt the life and convenience of this person, but typically these cars are absolutely destroyed by the time you get them back," said Raphael.
In Katrina Palmer's case, for instance, her car was recovered after a violent crash that left the older Subaru totaled.
The theft and crash left her without transportation, and she was unable to continue working at her job.
"You did ask yourself, why me? Why my car?" said Palmer
Demer said the district attorney's office, as well as the cities of Portland and Gresham are lobbying state lawmakers to change Oregon law to make it easier to prosecute car thieves.
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