Truck Tire Theft: Rolling in the Dough

arc logoThe February 2014 issue of the COPS Office Community Policing Dispatch contained an article discussing how the Redlands (California) Police Department (RPD) is utilizing GPS technology to provide residents a method of keeping their valuables safe while they are away from home. Read more about the program at “While You’re Away.” The following is the fifth article in a series describing how RPD is using GPS trackers to enhance the department’s community policing efforts and promote police legitimacy.

The Inland Empire is home to a vast number of large warehouses that serve as distribution centers for the western half of the United States. The warehouse market brings a number of benefits to the region including a large number of blue-collar jobs. Semi-trucks—cabs towing trailers—can be seen traversing the area during all hours of the day. Several trucks are often left parked in the distribution center parking lots for short periods of time. Unfortunately, the criminal element has discovered a window of opportunity to commit a profitable crime when the trucks are left unattended. The tires on the cabs and trailers are valued at approximately $600 each and can easily be removed and resold, creating a market for thieves.

In one instance, the video surveillance cameras at one major retailer distribution center caught two subjects in the act of stealing tires from a parked tractor-trailer. The suspects could be seen driving up to a tractor-trailer in an SUV. The passenger quickly exited the vehicle and snipped the valve stems to the outer tires, causing them to quickly deflate. The inner tires remained inflated, thereby sustaining the weight of the trailer. The driver then used a special tool designed to quickly separate the deflated tires from their rims. Both the driver and the passenger were then able to separate the tires from their rims and load the tires into their getaway vehicle. Their speed and precision suggested the theft crew had done this a number of times before.

Tire theft causes problems for a number of people. The independent truck owners are often left footing the $2,400 bill to replace the tires. The businesses have to deal with disrupted transportation schedules, which often lead to added expense. One major retailer in Redlands, California, experienced over $24,000 in theft of tires from tractor-trailers parked on their premises. The crime has not been limited to just a few select locations. Even trucks parked in secured parking lots were being targeted. The thieves would simply cut through the fence, commit the crime, and then cut the locks to the gates.

eyewitness imageIn order to combat this type of crime, most businesses would either hire a security guard to patrol the grounds at night or deploy surveillance cameras in an attempt to catch the suspects. Both measures are costly, and the chances of apprehending the criminals are still slight. One distribution center in Redlands was so large that the crooks were able to steal several tires while the security guard patrolled one side of the complex completely unaware of what was occurring on the other side. After installing surveillance cameras, some companies are left with images of the suspects stealing the tires, but they do not have any way of identifying the suspects. They can tell the authorities the tires were stolen at a certain time by a certain number of suspects, but they are still left with the cost of replacing all of the tires. If the jurisdiction is lucky enough to have funds available for undercover surveillance, the local police department may put surveillance teams on the target. However, this type of police work is very costly and often does not result in an arrest.

After watching the Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant of the Redlands Police Department give a presentation at the Western States Cargo Theft Task Force Conference on how RPD had been using GPS devices to solve crime trends in the community, Mark Donahue, a senior investigator for Swift Transportation, inquired about the feasibility of using the same GPS devices to address the tire theft problem that had been plaguing the warehouse districts in the Inland Empire. A plan was then formulated to use the trackers in an attempt to apprehend those that were causing a significant loss to the trucking industry.

Redlands Police Department Crime Analyst Amy Varela analyzed the thefts that were occurring throughout the region. After analyzing the “hot spots,” she forecasted a high probability that the thieves would strike at one of two distribution center parking lots located in Redlands sometime the following weekend. On Friday morning, the lieutenant met with Mark Donahue and his tire mechanic in one of the parking lots. Swift Transportation agreed to allow one of their semi-trucks to be used as bait for an undercover GPS deployment operation.

The mechanic removed the rear outer tire to the semi-truck the correct way. After the tire was separated from the rim, the lieutenant then placed a hi-tech GPS transmitter designed strictly for law enforcement and corporate security use into a shipping label and attached the shipping label in the inner part of the tire. The shipping label created a storage packet that could hold the GPS device and would effectively stick to the inside of the tire despite the oils present on the inside portion of the tire. Once the GPS tracker and shipping label were affixed to the tire, the lieutenant spray-painted the shipping label with a black rubberized paint, allowing the device to blend in with the tire. The mechanic then remounted the tire onto the rim and placed the rim back onto the truck, making sure the tracker was at the bottom so the force of gravity was not working against the shipping label’s adhesive.

This mounting process was possible due to the hibernation mode feature on the GPS devices, which enables the operator to deactivate the device until a time of the operator’s choosing. After exiting hibernation mode, the low-cost GPS device will activate upon five seconds of continuous movement and can be deployed in the field for up to eleven months before needing to be recharged. When a device activates upon motion, an alarm is sent to the dispatch center and text message alerts are sent to various officers’ cell phones. Officers then have about three to five hours to locate the device, with most apprehensions taking about 10-15 minutes.

In the case of the tire operation involving the Swift Transportation truck, the GPS device was only deployed for two days when the alarm sounded in dispatch indicating the tire was on the move. Within ten minutes, dispatchers were able to direct officers to the location of the suspects. As the responding officers closed in, they could clearly see the truck tires in the back of a truck. When stopped by the patrol officers, the driver and passenger both stated they picked up the tires a few days prior from a friend. Once officers confronted the suspects with the evidence, both suspects confessed to committing the crime.

eyewitness imageNews quickly spread throughout the region on how RPD utilized the GPS trackers to apprehend the tire thieves. A couple of months later, a regional auto theft task force in the Inland Empire was tasked with solving a series of similar tire thefts involving tractor-trailers of an international parcel transportation company. The task force adopted the strategy deployed by the Redlands Police Department and utilized several GPS trackers in a similar fashion. Within two weeks, one of the trackers activated in the middle of the night. With a designated team monitoring the activation, the team watched from their smartphones as the load of stolen tires was taken to a used tire shop. Upon their arrival at the used tire shop, the team moved in and “froze” the scene. Upon serving a search warrant at the tire shop, the team located over 100 stolen tires including the one containing the tracker. The team not only took two people into custody for stealing the tires but also arrested the “fencing operator.” The owner of the tire shop indicated that he knew the tires that are often brought to him were stolen. He paid crews $150 per tire and would then turn around and sell each tire for $300. There was not a shortage of truck owners looking to buy replacement tires, and the “fence operator” was really rolling in the dough. The irony of the whole scheme was that truck operators might very well be purchasing the same tires that were originally stolen from them.

Articles published in recent COPS Office Community Policing Dispatch have discussed how the Redlands Police Department has been using the GPS trackers to address vehicle burglary, thefts at the local cemetery, and even credit card skimming scams at gas station pumps. The concept of attaching them to the inside of tires that are routinely stolen demonstrates yet another use for the trackers. As law enforcement agencies continue to seek ways to do more with less, there is no doubt the use of GPS tracking devices to address crime trends in the community has become a main proactive policing strategy for police departments.

Next times: Using GPS Devices as Alarms

Learn more about the Redlands Police Department’s GPS electronic stakeout program.

Lt. Travis Martinez is the Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant of the Redlands Police Department and can be contacted at

Lt. Travis Martinez
Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant
Redlands Police Department

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