A San Jose resident turns on their car and hears a loud roar. They check under the car and confirm their worst fear: their catalytic converter is gone.
Catalytic converter thefts have spiked in San Jose in recent years, rising from 84 cases in 2019 to 1,087 in 2021, according to police department data. Filled with valuable metals, these expensive pollutant filters are magnets for thieves and almost impossible to trace because they lack owner information. But a new program aims to change that.
Last month, the San Jose Police Department launched the Etch and Protect Program. The department is partnering with auto body dealers and mechanic shops that will etch a motorist’s license plate number on their catalytic converter, along with a stencil of the SJPD logo. The goal is to deter thieves, and also make it easier for police to identify and recover stolen catalytic converters.
SJPD Cpt. Todd Trayer came up with the program after San Jose resident The Nguyen was shot and killed last March while confronting two people trying to steal the catalytic converter from his car. After the incident, Trayer looked at the data on these thefts and realized it was becoming a widespread problem across the city.
“I saw hundreds and hundreds of calls over the last year,” he told San José Spotlight. “That’s when I said we’ve got to do something about this.”
Catalytic converter theft is one crime driving an increasingly heated discourse about public safety in San Jose. Many candidates running in the June primary election for city offices have promised to increase the size of San Jose’s police force and affirmed they are against defunding the department.
San Jose officials recently approved an investment in license plate reading cameras to crack down on robberies at malls.
The etching program is still in its infancy, but Trayer said approximately 250 vehicles have been serviced at three participating mechanics shops: Capitol Honda, Stevens Creek Toyota and SpeeDee/Midas. The etching is included as part of routine maintenance for customers’ vehicles. About 500 people have made inquiries about the service, and he hopes to eventually expand the number of shops to 10.
“We’ve had a very, very positive response from the community,” Trayer said.
The San Jose Police Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds for police projects and equipment, supports the program by paying for the etching equipment. President Rob Fisher said catalytic converter thefts are an enormous burden on drivers if they don’t have insurance to cover a replacement.
“It’s an incredibly costly theft,” Fisher told San José Spotlight, noting replacement estimates can range between hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Catalytic converter thefts have increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, although law enforcement experts could not provide a reason why. In an operation last November, SJPD arrested 15 people suspected of participating in a Bay Area network stealing catalytic converters. Police recovered more than 1,000 parts.
San Jose Police Foundation Vice President Scott Seaman said several law enforcement agencies have expressed interest in San Jose’s etching program, given the current challenge of tracing the ownership of catalytic converters.
“Even people who are caught with catalytic converters, there’s no way to know whether or not they’re stolen,” he told San José Spotlight. “People can say—and have said—they’re salvaged, and the police frequently have to let them go.”
Yolanda Porras, store manager at SpeeDee/Midas, said about 25 customers have requested the etching service. She told San José Spotlight her shop has many customers who come in with missing catalytic converters.
“The price right now for catalytic converters is just ridiculous,” she said. “Between COVID and the war, shipping costs and gas prices, even being able to get them is not possible.”
One customer came to the shop on Dec. 8 for a replacement. Porras said the order is still pending. She said her shop is happy to help the community by making these thefts harder.
“If they’re marked, they’re traceable,” she said.