The Auto Bureau

The Cleveland Police Department has a long history of pursuing auto thieves and recovering stolen vehicles. As early as 1920, newspaper reports tell of detectives cooperating with police departments as far away as Rochester, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania.

In September of 1920, Detective George L. Franke was dispatched to Rochester “to take up the investigation of a strong association of automobile thieves” and to help identify stolen cars from Cleveland that were impounded there and in Erie, Pennsylvania according to a Plain Dealer report.

Cooperation by detectives from all three cities led to four Cleveland men arrested in Rochester going to trial in Cuyahoga County.

In the 1920s and 30s nearly all automobile owners belonged to their local chapter of the American Automobile Association (AAA). The owner’s membership offered all sorts of services such as travel, accommodations, route information, road service, and insurance. The Cleveland branch was the Cleveland Automobile Club, which had been founded on January 8, 1900 and was the second automobile club formed in the United States.

With the growing popularity of the automobile, the problem of auto thievery became so great that the Cleveland Automobile Club formed an anti-theft unit staffed by private investigators. The Club’s anti-theft unit cooperated closely with Cleveland detectives and even provided funds to the County Prosecutor to assist with prosecuting the thieves.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 09/16/1920

In the 1920s and 1930s Cleveland Police were recovering so many stolen vehicles that an impound lot had to be built, first on Champlain Street and later, on St. Clair Avenue on the site of the future City garage at 24th Street.

By January of 1924, six detectives were primarily involved in an auto theft squad but Chief Graul proposed doubling their number and purchasing two new roadsters to the detectives to use.

2326 St. Clair Avenue, Service Garage
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 01/24/1924

Then, in December of 1926, Police Inspector Cornelius Cody and officials from the Cleveland Automobile Club traveled to Detroit and Chicago to inspect their efforts in combatting auto thieves. The result of their trip was a lengthy report detailing several recommendations for improving the Cleveland Police efforts. The report called for formation of an Auto Bureau staffed by an additional eight detectives and that all of the assigned detectives be dedicated only to auto theft investigations. It also recommended a central office for the unit and it recommended consolidating and maintaining all records of auto thefts at the Auto Bureau office.

As a result, Lieutenant Harry Weis was assigned to form the first official Auto Bureau dedicated to the fight against auto thieves. The Auto Bureau began a long struggle to bring auto crime under control and cooperated with Cleveland Automobile Club investigators in recovering hundreds of vehicles. The Bureau joined with the Auto Club in promoting several auto theft prevention campaigns. At a time when many people did not even lock their homes, one of the first efforts they undertook was a campaign to urge people to lock and remove the keys from their parked cars.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 12/19/1926

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 11/05/1946

In 1932, Sergeant John R. Farrell, was appointed to the unit and became well known for his long association with the Auto Bureau. He served in that post until his retirement in 1967. Under Farrell’s leadership innovations were made in theft investigations and prosecutions, record keeping and communications. Sergeant Farrell advocated a spirit of cooperation between all of the interested agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the automobile insurance industry.

In 1949 the Unit consisted of 31 Detectives, including a Captain and three Sergeants.  Ten of the members were assigned to keeping detailed office records.  During 1949 there were 839 automobiles stolen and 793 were recovered.

By the 1970s the Auto Bureau had developed a sophisticated but labor-intensive system of operation. And it all occurred before the dawn of technology and the application of computers in law enforcement. In a 1976 report, a detective listed at least a dozen separate responsibilities of the Auto Bureau.

Investigations: Auto Bureau Detectives were assigned to conduct investigations of motor vehicle thefts and were also responsible for investigating, processing, preparing court cases, and charging suspects arrested by other members of the Police Department in connection with auto crimes.

Vehicle Towing: The Bureau was responsible for ordering tow trucks for the Police Department and maintaining records of the tows and impounds. It was responsible for identifying the owners of impounded vehicles and ensuring that the owners were notified.

Auto Dealer Enforcement: It was the duty of Auto Bureau detectives to verify that automobile dealers were in compliance with Cleveland Ordinances dealing with the purchase and sale of automobiles by dealers. Ordinances required dealers to complete a file card (provided by the City) on every used vehicle they purchased. The cards were forwarded to the Auto Bureau daily where a civilian employee was responsible for filing the cards upon receipt. Detectives could check VINs (vehicle identification numbers) on the cards against stolen vehicle reports and trace previous owners. Inspections of vehicles on sale by dealers verified the dealer’s compliance with the Ordinances and checked for stolen autos. It was a huge task at a time when virtually all local dealers were in the City of Cleveland.

Inspecting a car dealer lot

Records: The Auto Bureau was the repository and source for records of stolen autos and autos wanted by the police for any number of law enforcement reasons. Stolen auto reports were typically taken by uniformed officers who in turn telephoned the report to typists in the Police Record Room on the first floor of Central Police Station. The typist completed a multi-part form, and one copy was sent to the Auto Bureau.

At the Auto Bureau’s office, detectives completed a file card with the VIN and other pertinent information for each reported auto theft. The cards were then filed numerically by the VIN. A second file card was filed by the owner’s name.

A third set of file cards was maintained for tracking license plate numbers. The license number of the stolen vehicle was written in pencil on the license plate card. When a vehicle was recovered or no longer wanted by the police the plate number was simply erased.

A detective on each shift was assigned the responsibility of maintaining the “Book.” The Book was a very large ledger containing a handwritten account of all of the relevant information about each stolen vehicle report from the date of the initial report until the vehicle’s recovery. The Book was a quick reference and back up to the original theft reports from the Record Room in the event that information was lost or corrupted. The reports were then filed numerically for reference.

Ohio Law Enforcement Bulletin: Beginning in 1964, the State of Ohio partnered with local police and sheriff’s departments to form a Western Union teletype system for inter-agency communication between Ohio law enforcement agencies. Using the new teletype system, police departments from across the State forwarded information on stolen and recovered vehicles as well as vehicles wanted in connection with crimes to the Ohio State Patrol headquarters in Columbus. The Patrol compiled that information and other information pertinent to law enforcement and teletyped it early every morning to law enforcement agencies throughout the State as the “Ohio Law Enforcement Bulletin.”

A copy of the “Bulletin” was forwarded to the Auto Bureau and the information was recorded and kept in the same way as the local reports. The “Bulletins” were filed by date for reference as needed.

In addition to Cleveland reports and the “Ohio Law Enforcement Bulletin,” the Record Room received teletyped reports from surrounding suburbs. Those reports were forwarded to the Auto Bureau and vin and license data was recorded in the same manner as local reports and filed.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 05/30/1964

The “Hot Sheet”: In April 1953, Chief Radio Dispatcher Thomas E. Story and Captain Dennis J. Lynch, then head of the Auto Bureau, devised a plan that provided a list of stolen and wanted vehicles for every police officer; the “Hot Sheet.” Initially the “Hot Sheet” was prepared in Story’s office, but it soon became the responsibility of the Auto Bureau. All of the license plate information was recorded and prepared for distribution daily throughout the Cleveland Police Department and neighboring suburban departments.

Typical Hot Sheet
Typical Hot Sheet

License Plate Data: In the 1960s, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles contracted with a private company to have license plate ownership information compiled and printed into books for law enforcement. The Cleveland Police Department purchased a complete set of the books every year for plates registered in Cuyahoga County. There were about ten books for Cuyahoga County, and they were about six to seven inches thick.

Information on license plates from other counties had to be obtained by teletype to the Ohio State Patrol in Columbus.

Sometime during the 1940s or 1950s, the Auto Bureau office was equipped with a “lazy susan.” A large rotating metal “wheel” about five feet in diameter that had dividers creating pie shaped compartments to accommodate the listing books. In addition to the books, one compartment contained wooden file boxes for the stolen and wanted license plate files.

Phones: The “Wheel” was surrounded by four large desks where detectives answered the constantly ringing telephones. Calls came from automobile repossessors and finance companies that were required by ordnance to report when they took possession of a vehicle. Police officers were required to call and verify that a vehicle being reported stolen had not already been towed or repossessed. Owners of vehicles that had been stolen called frequently and sometimes often to ask if their vehicle had been found. Insurance agents also called checking to see if their insured’s vehicle had been recovered. The Auto Bureau became a clearinghouse for automobile information for all of Northeast Ohio.

Lieutenant Charles Cavolo and two unidentified Detectives working in the Auto Bureau Office

There were about ten telephone lines to the Auto Bureau and two dedicated lines, one to the Police Radio Dispatch Room and one to the Cleveland Automobile Club (AAA) dispatch center. The Department had an agreement for towing with the AAA. The AAA in turn maintained a radio dispatch system with AAA contract garages for the actual tow trucks.

The office had several small switch consoles for answering the lines with one console each for the four desks around the Wheel and the others on desks scattered throughout the room.

The most important phone line was the direct line to Police Radio. Zone cars, detectives, and other officers on the street made requests for information by radio. Requests involving motor vehicles were relayed to the Auto Bureau via the direct line. Detectives always made an urgent effort to answer the “Hot” Radio line as quickly as possible. The calls included checks on license numbers for wants and listings and VIN checks, among other things. The calls from Radio were most important since an officer could be making a vehicle stop or otherwise involved in a dangerous situation and needed the information quickly.

Often an officer involved with a stolen vehicle would need additional pertinent information that would require a detective to access the actual report for more details about the vehicle. And officer’s requests for tow trucks were called into the Auto Bureau from Radio. The detective answering the call completed a form with the required information and used the direct line to the AAA to order the tow.

High Band Radio: During the late 1960s, a High Band radio console was installed in the Auto Bureau office to provide fast, direct, assistance to detectives of the Narcotics and Intelligence Units and later the Tactical Unit. Responding to the High Band became another high priority for Auto Bureau detectives.

Tow Records: The Auto Bureau maintained a record of every towed and impounded vehicle. After AAA dispatched the tow truck, their dispatcher notified the Auto Bureau of the garage where the vehicle was impounded. As soon as the officer ordering the tow was able, the officer called the Auto Bureau to verify the place of impound, ownership and any other relevant information.

The Auto Bureau tow records were maintained in files by make of the vehicle and date of impound. Owners of the vehicles were required to come to the Auto Bureau and obtain a release for the vehicle by presenting a title proving ownership and a valid license plate registration.

All of the detectives assigned to the office were required to obtain the necessary information, complete the form and file it when a tow was ordered. One detective on the day shift had the permanent assignment to follow-up on the impounded vehicles and verify that the ownership information was correct, and the owner was notified. When VIN numbers were missing or had been tampered with, the local National Automobile Theft Bureau (NATB) agent was called in to identify the vehicle.

The National Automobile Theft Bureau was an investigative agency created by the automobile insurance industry to combat automobile crime. Only agents of the NATB had access to confidential automobile identification information.

During the day shift, it was often necessary to have two detectives handling releases at the Auto Bureau. This was especially true after the Department had a busy weekend. In the 1960s, the position of Police Cadet was created, and several were assigned to the Auto Bureau to assist with the paperwork.

In 1972, the Auto Theft Investigation Unit was spun off from the Auto Bureau and took responsibility for all investigative functions. The Auto Bureau continued to operate for another half dozen years before all of the record keeping functions were taken over by the Police Record Room and a newly created Vehicle Impound Unit took over all of the towing and impound duties. All of these changes were made possible by the introduction of computers.

Innovation came slowly to the Auto Bureau as it came slowly to the Cleveland Police Department. Purchases of computers, radios and other equipment were always hampered by a lack of funding from the City. However, in recent years, the Cleveland Police Department has made great advances in the use of sophisticated electronics and computers.

Written by Sergeant William McComb, Ret.

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