Saturday, August 30, 2003

Hundreds of District residents yesterday learned how to protect their property during an “Auto Theft Device Day” in an area where car thefts are at a six-year high.

About 500 residents, many of whom live in Ward 6, got tips from District police officers on how to deter thieves from targeting their vehicles, including using anti-theft devices on steering wheels and signing up for anti-theft programs.

Ward 6, which falls under the 6th Police District, currently has the highest rate of car thefts in the District, accounting for 52 percent of the vehicles stolen. Juveniles commit about 41 percent of the local car thefts, according to a police brochure passed out to car owners last month.

“We’re fully aware of the increase of auto thefts and we’re here today to educate citizens,” said Officer Brad Wagner, who was one of several officers who addressed the residents yesterday. “[These tips] are an ounce of prevention.”

The daylong event was sponsored by the Metropolitan Police Department’s 6th District and American Skyline Insurance Co. (ASIC), a Baltimore-based company that gave away 500 Master Lock anti-theft devices to the participants. The event took place on the grounds of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington in Northeast.

The event came 10 days after Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey declared a crime emergency in the District because of a recent spike in homicides and robberies. In addition, the city’s auto-theft statistics have increased to their highest level in six years, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report released last month.

There were 9,168 auto thefts reported in the District last year, compared with 7,970 in 2001, the report showed. D.C. auto thefts reached a 10-year high in 1995, then decreased through 1998.

As a result, the District has the second highest automobile insurance rates in the country. New Jersey ranks No. 1.

To combat the thefts, Officer Wagner, 32, created a program called “The Joy Ride is Over,” which police use to teach young people about the consequences of stealing cars.

So far, there have been two fatalities stemming from car thefts — one at 600 46th St. SE and another at Texas and C streets SE, Officer Wagner said. Police said in both cases juveniles were driving vehicles they had stolen.

Mark Poindexter, the D.C. branch manager for ASIC, said yesterday’s event was a must. As the only black-owned-and-operated insurance company in the region, he said it is the company’s responsibility to give back to the community.

“We want our customers to protect their cars and it’s in our best interest to help customers protect their vehicles. But, we also want to be good corporate citizens and we want to give something back,” said Mr. Poindexter, a D.C. native who grew up in Southeast.

Jewel Hall, 48, wouldn’t have missed yesterday’s event. She said there has been a rash of auto thefts in her neighborhood in Northeast. Ms. Hall listened intently while officers talked about a relatively new national program called “Watch Your Car.”

The program urges participating car owners to sign an agreement stating that their car is not normally used between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. If police spot the car during those hours, they will stop the vehicle to determine who is driving it and whether the driver has the owner’s permission to operate it. Police stressed that all information obtained would remain confidential.

“This is a good thing,” Ms. Hall said of the program. She also was thrilled about getting a Master Lock from ASIC. “I hope it will deter people from stealing my car,” she said.

Todd Waugh, 45, brought his teenage son to the event. Mr. Waugh, who lives in Southeast, said his car was stolen last November. Police found his car a month later in Suitland Park. He said it doesn’t take much skill for youngsters to steal cars.

“It’s easy. These young boys know how to steal — it’s just like tying their shoe strings,” he said.

John D. Davis, 6th District community outreach specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, urged residents not to make it easy for potential car thieves. A former D.C. police officer for 27 years in Ward 6, Mr. Davis stressed that residents should not turn their cars on and then leave them unattended. And, it’s against the law, he said.

“Too many times police arrest people for a key case,” he said. “It’s against the law to leave keys in the car. A key case is not a good case to prosecute. We’re trying to institute programs that are proactive to deter auto theft.”

Mr. Davis said young people in the old days took joy rides in other people’s cars, but the ages have gotten substantially younger in recent years.

“Now kids 10 years old are involved in auto theft,” Mr. Davis said. “We’re trying to reach them — but we are also trying to reach the parents. We are finding out a lot of parents don’t know how to parent.”

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