MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A Madison police officer in the gang unit said there are at least 20 active gangs in Madison, one, most recently focuses on stealing cars.
Officer Shane Olson said there's a core group of 20-30 kids stealing cars in the last year across Madison, 50 if you count fringe kids in surrounding communities.
However, officers run a fine line between arresting the teens, and giving them the attention some of them want, and trying to understand why they're making those decisions.
NBC15 Investigates requested surveillance video of an incident on the east side of Madison, where a couple of teens seek a thrill. It's something Olson said happens frequently.
"Just foot on the break, hit the button, if it starts you're good you can just take off. It's that easy," Olson said.
In a matter of seconds, the teens stole the car and drive off.
911 caller: "My boyfriend came outside to warm up my car, just two three minutes, and it's no longer here."
A few hours later on the west side of Madison, the teens stop at a gas station to come across people who recognized the car they were in.
"Yeah, that's our car. Yeah that's our car!" the woman whose car was stolen on the east side earlier that day.
The woman and her boyfriend asked the gas attendant to call police.
911 caller, gas attendant: "I have some kids in a stolen car, and the people's who's car that was stolen are here with me right now."
The black Jetta, belonged to the couple, who just so happened drove up to the pump and found their car.
911 caller, gas attendant: "Their car got stolen on the East side, and it's here right now."
"I was just going to sit on the car. And these kids just asked [my boyfriend] to buy some backwoods [rolling paper]," the woman said to the gas attendant in the surveillance video.
The teens, not knowing they just stole the car from a man, asked him to buy rolling paper.
The man bought the rolling paper, and tried to use it to grab the keys out of the teens hands in the exchange.
In the video, the man, the owner, jumped into the front seat, took the keys, the teens ran away.
Incidents like these, have been all too common for Madison Police in the last year.
"I think they're doing it [stealing cars] because it's so fun," Olson said.
As of March 13, according to Madison Police Chief Mike Koval's blog, the City reported 86 stolen autos versus 75 in 2018 (a 15 percent increase). In February of 2019, the city processed 38 stolen auto reports, and 28 of those were recovered. Comparing the February numbers of 2019 to the February numbers of 2018 (27 stolen auto reports), the city experienced a 41 percent increase in that context.
"The kids know we're not chasing them. We've tried to stop plenty of them and they just take off and we're not pursuing," Olson said. "Because we're afraid they're going to crash."
Olson has two decades of experience working in law enforcement, the last 10 years, specifically in the gang unit.
"There's more crimes happening than when I first got in the gang unit, and I think that's a result of more people living here, more people being involved," Olson said. "As the city grows, we're changing. We're growing from a small city to beginning to have much more big city problems."
Olson said most of the stolen car incidents have a gang tie, but for some of the teens, the behavior is all they know.
"I've talked to kids that they think they're in a gang in their single digits, and if they think they are, they are, because they're aware of it and they know what's going on," Olson said. "But that goes back to, 'my family is that,' or, 'I was born into it.'"
" This is not something we're going to arrest our way out of," Andre Johnson, Youth Justice Manager at Dane County Department of Human Services, said. "It is affecting people in different communities now."
After cited or arrested, Johnson steps in to connect the teens with services, which range from accountability checklists with parents and teens, to more formal state charges.
"The premise for our system is that we don't see them again," Johnson said.
Johnson said while there's an increase in car thefts, there's a decrease in juvenile crime across the board in Dane County.
"In the late 90s, in Dane County, we were arresting 10,000 arrests of juveniles annually," Johnson said. "That's both municipal citations and referrals for state charges. We're down under 3,000 now."
Johnson said the reason for less could be the system and programs in place.
"They're kids. It doesn't excuse the behavior. It doesn't mean we don't need to protect the community along the way, but we have to understand where they are developmentally, and put up appropriate developmental services in place to address those needs."
Understanding the teens is also part of Olson's job.
"I try to find out if they have any interest, if there's any way I can help them, pursue those interests as opposed to stealing cars," Olson said.
While the cars are valuable, to Olson, it's the teens behind the wheel worth saving.
"I'm afraid that we're going to have a kid or someone else killed as a result of kids stealing and driving these cars," Olson said.
Which is why Olson said he won't stop trying to help them.
"If I don't, then I have that many more victims out there," Johnson said.