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Stolen Car King

In eight years with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Officer Dave Callister has developed a reputation for finding the bad guys, especially those driving stolen cars. During the past five years, he has managed to identify more than 400 occupied stolen vehicles and has become known as the 10-40 King (10-40 is the Arizona DPS radio code for stolen car). Not surprisingly, along with the stolen cars came large quantities of drugs, guns and smuggled cargo, including human beings. Callister s accomplishments have been so remarkable, former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (now Homeland Security Secretary) formally recognized him in a state ceremony in December 2007.

When I heard about Callister s success, I decided to dig a little deeper to see what could be learned from his experience that may benefit other officers, task force agents and supervisors who want to make a difference in this challenging area. I contacted Callister and arranged for an early morning ridealong while I was in the Phoenix area for a conference.

A Ride with the King
At 0500 on a cool, quiet Sunday morning, Officer Callister arrived at my hotel. As I walked out to the car, I saw him moving his equipment to the back seat to make room for me. After a brief show and tell of the car and his assignment, we hit the road.

Callister is a big guy, the kind whose boots you'd love to hear pounding the pavement if you were in trouble and needed help. As we talked, it quickly became evident that Callister has found his niche and loves his job. The state of Arizona has assigned him to a task force working border crimes, and his group covers the entire area of the Arizona and Mexico border, as well as the traffic corridors that transect the area. The group's officers have a great deal of autonomy, flexing their hours as needed and targeting potential trouble spots on the fly.

Having demonstrated an ability to find more than his share of bad guys, Callister got a new tool in March 2006 when he was assigned a patrol car with an automated license plate reader (LPR). I asked him if the LPR unit was responsible for his impressive stats, and he explained that the tech tool helped him work more effectively because the system would just do its job while he patrolled his area looking for other signs of criminal activity. Callister is what I call a rock-turner, because he's always looking for the next bad guy and is willing to turn over a lot of rocks to find them. It's always been my experience that good cops do a lot of looking and have the attitude that there s something out there to find. Callister definitely exudes this attitude, and the LPR device seems to enhance Callister s innate ability to find the bad guys.

Callister adds that the LPR brought a whole new perspective to his efforts because it runs everything it sees, sometimes surprising him by what it picks up on, particularly vehicles that he might not have otherwise identified. He also notes that the LPR can check plates hundreds of times faster than the old way of entering plates on a computer or calling the numbers in to a dispatcher.

As we moved out on the street, Callister explained that the early morning hours give him an opportunity to target certain areas where the crooks have to land temporarily and allow him to catch them while their guard is down. Callister began working the parking lots across the street from my hotel (apparently I was staying in a target-rich area). As he drove, I could hear a soft ping each time the Elsag LPR unit checked another plate. There were a lot of pings and a couple of times an alert tone indicated the unit may have located a wanted vehicle.

Upon hearing the alert, Callister turned his attention to the screen and determined that the wanted plate was from a different state than the one displayed. He explained that LPR units read the plate but can't really differentiate the state that is displayed on the vehicle, so the officer has to confirm the read with the wanted information. It took Callister only a second to do this, and he continued driving through the lots.

Getting a Hit
As we rolled around the back side of a low dollar hotel, the LPR unit sounded a hit, and a quick check of the data showed this was a true hit on a reported stolen an overdue rental from California. Sometimes these overdue rentals turn out to be something of a civil problem, but other times, they turn out to be part of a crime spree, usually involving some level of identity theft.

Callister quickly confirmed the plate and notified an auto theft task force supervisor. It was early Sunday morning, and a little work needed to be done to figure out the rest of the story. The situation presented somewhat of a challenge because the lot where the car was parked didn't provide any area from which the car could be easily observed. A supervisor checked at the hotel lobby for possible suspect information and another DPS vehicle moved into a position from which the car could be seen about a block away.

As the initial investigative inquiry was launched, Callister backed off to an area partially hidden from view and a short distance away from the stolen vehicle. As we sat across the street from the lot where the wanted car was parked, the investigative queries continued. Suddenly, there was activity around the Saturn, and Callister moved quickly, maneuvering the DPS Crown Vic out of a crowded parking lot, across a median and into the parking lot where the Saturn had been parked. As we pulled into the lot where the LPR had previously sounded the alert, I saw that the vehicle lights were on and a subject was in the driver's seat. The Saturn was just starting to move backward as Callister came on scene with emergency lights, high-beams and a spotlight pointed at the driver. The layout of the parking lot and the angle of the vehicle prevented Callister from actually stopping the vehicle s rearward movement, but the driver froze momentarily, looking directly at Callister like a deer in headlights.

For a moment, I thought he might give up, but that thought was quickly dispelled when he abruptly accelerated to the rear and crashed at high speed into a very large Ford F-350 truck parked in an adjacent row. Despite the Ford s size, the impact sent the truck skittering across the parking lot. The collision was so loud and forceful I thought the suspect s vehicle was disabled and the escape was over.

A moment later, however, the Saturn was back in motion, this time headed like a missile at Callister's patrol vehicle. Because of the angle at which we were positioned, the Saturn was headed right for my passenger door. It was obvious that a collision was imminent, so I yanked on my seatbelt, leaned to the left to move away from the door and mentally yelled for Callister to get us out of the way. I'm not sure if I said anything aloud, but Callister certainly didn't need any coaching from me. He was doing his best to get out of the way. He was able to move the vehicle just far enough forward that the Saturn impacted on the right rear of the patrol vehicle, spinning us slightly, but leaving us unhurt and ready to continue the chase.

Unfortunately, we were facing the wrong direction, and the narrowness of the parking lot meant that Callister had to loop the lot to get to the roadway where the Saturn had exited. A responding DPS unit was nearly slammed into head-on by the fleeing vehicle. By the time Callister made the loop, the vehicle was out of sight and initial efforts to locate it proved futile. We returned to the hotel parking lot where additional officers had swarmed the scene. A subject had been seen running away from the area and was believed to be a partner left behind by the Saturn driver. A check of the area through which he ran yielded a loaded semi-auto pistol. A hotel room connected with the suspects was identified and officers did a quick search and clear, but found no other suspects.

A Crime-Fighting Machine
As the scene unfolded, word came that the Saturn had been found abandoned in an alleyway a couple of miles from the hotel. Callister drove to the scene, now cordoned off and being worked for evidence. The alley where the suspect had abandoned the stolen vehicle was somewhat economically depressed and there were a lot of vacant homes. Callister walked up and down the alley, methodically checking backyards and out structures, but found nothing. He also checked trash containers in case the suspect had, like his partner, tossed a weapon. None was found. Due to the number of vacant houses in the area and the time lapse involved, it was not feasible to check all of them, but Callister did spend some time working what he thought would be a logical escape path. Nothing was found.

After watching an investigator process the Saturn for prints, we spent about another hour together as Callister demonstrated the capabilities of the Elsag LPR unit on his vehicle and the way he set it up for different patrol efforts. This gave me the opportunity to get some specific tricks-of-the-trade information, and you can find a concise listing of the techniques that have been successful for Callister in the sidebar on p.44. I came to the conclusion that it's the combination of Callister's inherent skills and the effectiveness of the license plate reading technology that have turned Callister into a true crime-fighting machine.

I also had the opportunity to do a video interview with Callister concerning his patrol efforts and use of the LPR. To view this video, click on the links (there are two parts to the video) at the end of this article.

Tips from the King
Callister s tips to increase your chances of catching car crooks

  • Consider the vehicles that are being used and the criminal conduct in your area. In the case of the crimes along the border, Callister finds a lot of smuggling of both drugs and human beings. He has found that SUVs and pickups are more often involved, so he gives these vehicles an extra level of scrutiny.
  • Understand your opponent and what they need to do their crime. Consider where they have to meet or bed down, as well as the timing of their operation. Increase your odds by targeting these areas at the times when criminals are most likely to be found.

    In general, Callister has found that crooks are more often working the roadways on weekdays than on weekends. Although this may be unique to his area of operation, the point is still the same: Understand where and when, then target your efforts accordingly.

  • Utilize the vehicle code wisely. Look for vehicles that merit attention and watch for vehicle code violations that will provide a lawful and legitimate reason for the stop. Callister likes the violation of following too closely because it is also the most common cause of accidents.
  • Pay careful attention to those drivers who are paying too much attention, to you. These guys seem to create their own violation by either trying to hide behind someone else or they become so fixated on keeping an eye on the rear view mirror that they screw up, Callister says. When they're concentrating on me, they re often up to no good.
  • Make a high volume of contacts. The more rocks you turn over, the greater the chance that you will find something.
  • Look for any indication that a person is unfamiliar with the vehicle they are driving. One of Callister's favorite finds is a pickup being operated with the cargo light on. Little signs like this may mean that the person doesn't belong in the car.
  • In parking lots, look for vehicles that look like they have been hastily parked or parked in such a way that the driver doesn't care about the vehicle. Callister once noted a truck that had scraped an adjacent parking structure. Further checking revealed the vehicle had a fictitious plate.

    In areas that have sheltered parking (areas with high temperatures, for instance), look for vehicles that have been left outside. Callister also notes that he has found more stolen vehicles in non-assigned parking spaces, attributing this to the crook trying to avoid drawing attention to the vehicle or to avoid being connected with the vehicle if living in the same complex.

    Callister acknowledges that some investigators feel that vehicles that are backed into a spot are probably up to something. Although he gives these situations a little closer look, he has not necessarily found this to be the case. He has noticed that there seems to be a tendency for stolen vehicles to be at the end of rows or near the outskirts of a lot.

  • Pay careful attention to anything unusual about the license plate or the area around it. Any sign of tampering or recent activity around the plate merits closer examination. Look for retaining bolts that don't match, single bolt attachments, plates hanging askew and plates with a frame that doesn't ring true, such as a Chevy truck with a Lexus frame.

Tips for Maximizing LPR Effectiveness
Callister uses two Elsag LPR cameras mounted on the push bar of his patrol car. He likes this approach because the slicktop unit is low profile, and most people don t even notice the cameras. The cameras have strong magnetic mounts that allow them to be moved on the push bar platform. When he's working the highways, Callister usually angles both cameras to the left. When I'm parked perpendicular to the road, it's getting all the traffic passing by me and it sometimes captures thousands of plates in a day. When I'm on a stop, the cars are going by [to] the left of me so the unit continues to work while I'm out of the car.

When Callister wants to work the parking lots, he'll adjust the cameras to give an approximately 45 degree angle to both the left and right sides. This lets him drive between rows of cars and capture plates from both sides simultaneously. The right-angled camera also effectively picks up cars that are parallel parked.

Use the LPR aggressively. If a look-out broadcast comes out for a wanted vehicle, manually enter the plate and go on the hunt. The LPR is much more effective at scanning plates than an officer can be. And when you enter the plate, the unit will tell you if it was recently seen, even if the officer wasn't looking for it at the time. Callister relates the story of a three-letter agency that had a high-value surveillance effort underway but lost the target vehicle. They asked for assistance from marked units in reacquiring the vehicle.

Callister entered the plate and found that the vehicle had passed by him less than 20 minutes before the request came out. He was able to provide a specific time, location and direction of travel to the agency. This led to the vehicle being located and the surveillance continuing, culminating in a significant arrest.

Finally, keep the LPR on the road and operating as much as possible. Callister has found that, on average, he gets something significant for every 10,000 plates read. This goes back to the concept that the more you look, the more you find. The LPR just lets you do a lot more looking.

An Update Saturn Suspect Nabbed
The subject who had been seen running away from the scene was later identified as the person who had signed for the hotel room. He was arrested and provided information that led to the identity of the driver of the Saturn. After some intense investigative efforts, the suspect, Anthony Soto, 22, was captured as he entered another stolen vehicle. He was armed with a concealed handgun and was in possession of narcotics at the time of his arrest. During questioning, he admitted to being the driver of the stolen Saturn and acknowledged he had intentionally rammed the DPS patrol unit in his escape. Soto had hidden in a vacant house near the area where he had dumped the car, lying for hours in a bathtub after seeing an officer (probably Callister) walking around outside. Reportedly, Soto claimed he had been high on meth for three days at the time of the incident. He currently sits in the Maricopa County Jail, awaiting trial on multiple felony counts.

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