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Don’t leave keys in the car (and that goes for police, too)

Police often dole out tips to drivers to help prevent them from becoming victims of car theft. But on Monday, a Metropolitan Police Department sergeant who until recently was a supervisor in the auto-theft unit, could have used a reminder himself.

Someone stole the 6th District officer's marked cruiser Monday afternoon. And it wasn't all that difficult.

The officer left the keys in the car.

The theft unfolded at about 12:20 p.m. in the 1600 block of Fort Davis Place Southeast. The officer, who has not been identified, was responding to a 911 call. Officials said someone called the emergency line and hung up, prompting police to dispatch the cruiser to the area. But when the officer, a 10-year veteran of the police force, got out of his car, he left the keys inside. And when he returned, the car was gone.

Whoever stole the vehicle didn't get far. The car was found crashed into a retaining wall just up the road.

Police held a news conference Monday to explain the odd circumstances of the bold theft.

"We believe one of the members left the vehicle unsecured with the keys inside of the vehicle and someone got inside of the vehicle and drove about a half block down the street," said 6th District Cmdr. Robert Contee, stoically explaining the incident in terms less embarrassing than the circumstances might have warranted. "That individual jumped out of the vehicle once it crashed."

Cmdr. Contee said the person who stole the police car ran after crashing it, and is being sought by police. He also confirmed the officer had been a supervisor with the auto-theft unit. And while the officer didn't see the car being taken, plenty of other people did. Several witnesses were being questioned about the incident, but police on Monday afternoon offered no description of a suspect.

And, as humbling as the incident might have been, police said the situation clearly could have been worse. No bystanders were hurt in the crash, and it was not known whether the person who stole the cruiser was injured. Police couldn't say how much damage was done to the car, which careened into a retaining wall in front of a house, but officials said the car wasn't totaled.

The 6th District, which includes parts of Northeast and Southeast D.C., has led the city in car thefts every year since at least 2007, according to police statistics. In 2011, the last year for which figures were available, 986 cars — or nearly three per day — were stolen from that district alone. It's unclear how many of those vehicles may have been police cars.

Citywide, 18 cars are stolen every day in the District, according to information about auto-theft prevention on the police department website. On the same webpage, under the heading "exercising common sense," authorities offer a series of tips for preventing auto theft — the first of which is "removing your keys from the ignition."

"The vehicle should have been secure," Cmdr. Contee said at the afternoon news conference, adding that the officer whose car was stolen could be disciplined.

Asked what the protocol for securing the vehicle should have been, Cmdr. Contee said simply, "Lock the door, remove the key."

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