- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

Police officials said yesterday the District has the highest automobile-theft rate in the country and that half of Maryland’s thefts occur in Prince George’s County.

The findings were announced during a summit on starting a multi-jurisdictional effort to curb the problem.

“Vehicle theft … leads to other crimes and costs millions of dollars for police departments and insurance companies,” said Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. “Our goal is to form a cooperative partnership that ignores jurisdictional boundaries.”

More than half of the 62,616 car thefts last year throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District occurred in the Washington metropolitan area. The District alone had 9,549 of them, which gave it the country’s highest car-theft rate per capita.

Chief Charles H. Ramsey of the Metropolitan Police Department said the number of thefts in the city is down by 10 percent so far this year compared with last year, despite the region’s high numbers.

Still, the thefts cost the region more than $150 million a year, including the rising cost of auto insurance for everybody who drives,

“The problem touches us all either directly or indirectly,” Chief Ramsey said. “The [thieves] hit us in the pocketbook.”

More than 14,400 vehicles have been stolen so far this year in Prince George’s County, about half the total for Maryland.

Such numbers prompted officials to call the summit, hosted at the GEICO company headquarters in Chevy Chase and sponsored by the Maryland Department of State Police, the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Virginia State Police’s Help End Auto Theft Program, also known as HEAT.

The area already has a regional task force that finds and arrests car thieves — the Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement Team (WAVE). But authorities say the 10-member team of state and federal officers is too small and must coordinate better with prosecutors and courts.

“We have a law-enforcement approach, but it’s not” enough, said W. Ray Presley, executive director of the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council. “We’re trying to get some sort of regular approach to sharing information between prosecutors, judges and juvenile courts.”

Officials said juvenile joyriders are responsible for a high number of the thefts in the region.

Mark DeHart, a Virginia state trooper and coordinator of the HEAT program, said 13- to 20-year-olds are responsible for 62 percent of vehicle thefts in the state.

The District has a similar problem, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Among the worst was an accident in July in which a 12-year-old driving a stolen van was charged with killing a man on a mo-ped in Southeast. And a 16-year-old driving a stolen car in June was charged with the fatal hit-and-run involving an elderly woman in Northeast.

Almost 3,000 juveniles were arrested for unauthorized vehicle use from Jan. 1, 2000, to March 12, 2004, Metropolitan Police spokesman Kenny Bryson said this past summer. He also said some of those arrested had been charged more than six times.

Glenn Ivey, state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, said judges often will not sentence a first-time juvenile offender from a low-income family, leaving the offender free to steal again.

“What we’re trying to do is get a step up on the consequences,” Mr. Ivey said. “There needs to be real, negative consequences for stealing a car, and it’s going to happen the first time.”

Officials would like a program modeled after the Baltimore Regional Auto Theft Team, a combined effort between Baltimore County and Baltimore City that employs auto theft detectives and court liaisons to communicate between jurisdictions.

Authorities yesterday heard from auto-theft experts from as far west as Arizona on the successes and failures of their state programs. Speakers focused on public awareness campaigns, law enforcement, prosecution and juvenile prevention in hopes of creating the groundwork for a plan in the Washington area.

“The objective today is to follow up,” said Mr. Presley, who said the next meeting will focus on committing to a long-term plan.

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