Denver-area hospitals see increase in vehicle theft on medical campuses

Zach Vine thought he would only be at the hospital for about an hour.

His Jan. 30 visit to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora involved routine care for his epilepsy, and he figured he’d be in and out and back home to Centennial with no issues.

But when he and his wife left the hospital to return to their self-parked car, it was nowhere to be found.

“We asked the valets; they kind of laughed at us like we should have known better,” Vine said. “We went to speak to someone at the front desk, and the lady was like, ‘Why did you park your car there,’ as if it was our fault. It felt like everyone was in on the joke but us, essentially.”

He sought out information on car thefts at the hospital and discovered not only had thefts on campus at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center doubled in 2022 compared to 2021, but his car was also the 22nd stolen just this January.

But that situation is not unique to UCHealth’s Aurora hospital. Several other metro area hospitals have also recorded an increase in automobile thefts from surface lots. While law enforcement officials say the increase is in line with wider trends in the area, leaders at several of the hospitals say they are taking action to combat the issue.

Mike Greenwell, the commander of the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force, said the number of car thefts reported at or near area hospitals has increased from 2019 to 2022, but the numbers do coincide with the increase in auto thefts across the metro area in general. According to the task force’s 2022 summary, the Denver metro area saw an 11% increase in 2022 compared to 2021.

Parking lots and parking structures are the top locations for thefts, and the general increase in the metro area shows Greenwell the increase in hospitals’ lots is not unusual.

Vine said he feels like this issue is particularly important for people to know about, though, because people could be visiting hospitals with serious health conditions or be in vulnerable mental health states and expecting a certain level of safety.

“The fact that my car was the 22nd in a 31-day month; when you have that many cars stolen from your private property, you have an obligation to communicate to your paying customers,” Vine said. “All they wanted to do (when I asked) was say it’s happening at the airport. What is your point? I didn’t go to the airport. I came and parked in your lot expecting there was a bare minimum level of safety that didn’t exist.”

Greenwell, while noting the increase at hospitals aligns with metro Denver’s increase overall, also said he agreed with Vine’s assertion that car thefts are more impactful on potentially vulnerable hospital-goers.

“Unfortunately, with the number of people who come in/out of the medical facilities, allows for lower recognition of suspicious behavior,” Greenwell said in an email. “And, unfortunately, our criminals are taking advantage of people who have their attentions/emotions diverted elsewhere while at the hospitals.”

As of Dec. 14, 2022, there were 106 recorded reports of stolen vehicles and 39 attempted auto thefts at CU Anschutz, according to a December 2022 news release. Of that total, nearly 90% of the thefts were reported in lots for University of Colorado Hospital or Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“Unfortunately, thieves can steal vehicles in a matter of just a few minutes,” CU Anschutz Police Chief Randy Repola said. “Having nearby access to Colfax Avenue and Interstate 225 also allows them to get away quickly from the hospital lots.”

The lots most targeted according to CU Anschutz police at University of Colorado Hospital are Lot 6, where Vine parked, and Lot 4, both of which are patient and visitor self-parking lots; and Lot 7, the emergency department parking lot.

Both self-park lots are right off Colfax Avenue, and the emergency lot is adjacent to Lot 6.

Vine said had they known the Hyundai Sonata they drove that day is one of the most targeted vehicle makes and models, they would have either driven a different car or had Vine’s wife drop him off and stay with the car, but because they live in suburban Centennial, they hadn’t been keeping up with auto theft trends in Denver or Aurora. He feels like the hospital should do more to notify visitors so vulnerable people don’t become targeted.

“It’s outrageous, and sadly, the victimization continues,” Vine said of being left out of the loop of information. “Eventually someone will get hurt unless (they) make meaningful changes.”

CU Anschutz police has several measures to internally inform staff and students on their campus, like an app and internal news releases on the CU Anschutz website, but information on auto thefts was not easily findable until Vine knew what he was looking for.

When asked about informing patients as well as staff, Dan Weaver, the vice president of communications at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, said they are now implementing several measures to try to let patients and visitors know how to stay safe.

“I think it is a problem everywhere (in the Denver metro), and it is certainly a problem we are focused on and concerned about at the University of Colorado Hospital and our lots,” Weaver said. “Our security teams have more than doubled the number of vehicle patrols that are in our lots every day. We’ve also doubled our number of foot patrols.”

Weaver also updated the hospital’s business card on Google, so now when people Google the hospital, a link to the news release about the increase in thefts and which lots are most impacted is listed with the hospital’s general information.

A Colorado Department of Transportation road sign is also in the hospitals’ lots, warning visitors about the increase in thefts, and campus police recently partnered with a license reading camera company to try and catch would-be thieves in real-time before they can commit crimes.

More hospitals also see increase in car thefts

Statistics from the Auto Theft Intelligence Coordination Center of thefts Greenwell provided show the general increase in the areas within a half-mile radius of six metro hospitals for the past four years.

In the area around Denver Health Medical Center, 777 Bannock St., 227 car thefts were reported in 2022, up from the 178 reported in 2021, according to the ATICC statistics.

At Denver Health specifically, there were 49 reported car thefts in 2022 compared to 29 in 2021, Denver Health spokesperson Heather Burke wrote in an email.

Responding to Vine’s worry about the potential for violent incidents, Burke said the hospital has not had any such incident in connection to auto theft.

To combat the increase, which Burke said was in line with the city’s increase overall, the hospital recently installed a license plate reader for vehicles entering and exiting the parking garage on Delaware Street and upgraded the lights to LED bulbs to provide security with better views of people going in and out of the garage.

The hospital also has over 1,000 cameras across the campus and blue light emergency stations for anyone who may be in distress.

HealthONE, the largest healthcare system in metro Denver that operates hospitals such as Presbyterian/St. Luke’s, Swedish, Rose and North Suburban, has also seen similar increases at some of their locations, though they did not provide specific statistics for their campuses.

“We continue to analyze our security measures to deter all criminal activity,” said Stephanie Sullivan, assistant vice president of media relations at HealthONE. “We always aim to educate and inform our colleagues, patients, providers and visitors through onsite communication as well.”

HealthONE partners with onsite security and contracted off-duty police officers “to ensure our campuses remain as safe as possible and are fortunate to have not experienced any violent crimes,” Sullivan said.

They also have thousands of security cameras and security patrols and partner with law enforcement to investigate incidents.

National Jewish Health and SCL Health (now Intermountain Health), which operates Lutheran Hospital and St. Joseph’s Hospital, both said their hospitals have seen a decrease in car thefts after implementing their own proactive safety measures.

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