- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Prince George’s County officials say adding police officers and prosecutors to its program to reduce auto thefts has reduced the number of stolen vehicles in the county by 16 percent compared to the same time last year.

“We’re putting together a really legitimate auto-theft team,” said Delegate Barbara A. Frush, a member of the county’s Auto Theft and Vandalism Prevention Task Force, which began its work in January after a statewide summit on the problem.

Officials say the task force has three main components ? police work, public awareness and legislation ? and that County Executive Jack B. Johnson has provided $300,000 for overtime, equipment and other expenses.

County spokesman Jim Keary says the number of year-to-date auto thefts in Prince George’s has fallen from 5,134 in April 2004 to 4,280 in April 2005, which shows the new task force is working.

“I’ve never seen a task force move so rapidly and with such vigor and dedication as this one,” said Mrs. Frush, Prince George’s Democrat.

When the task force started, the region already had a police unit dedicated to catching car thieves. However, task force members said the 10 federal and state officers working as the Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement team, or WAVE, was too small and needed to coordinate better with prosecutors and courts.

The new team, which started operations April 15, has 28 members and has made 13 arrests and recovered 19 stolen vehicles in its first two weeks, Mr. Keary said.

The team, known as WAVE 2, will eventually have as many as 40 police officers from the District and Prince George’s, Charles and Montgomery counties and other law-enforcement agencies. Though officers will continue to focus on catching thieves and recovering vehicles, they also plan to go after chop shops and use more statistical analysis.

Capt. Russell San Felice of the Prince George’s County Police Department, the WAVE 2 commander, said the team will soon add one investigative and two tactical-enforcement squads.

“It’s a much more comprehensive approach to auto theft regionally than we’ve ever had before,” he said.

However, the county still has a significant car-theft problem.

For example, the 18,485 vehicles stolen last year in Prince George’s were more than the 17,376 taken throughout the rest of Maryland in 2004.

Mr. Keary said public awareness is still as important as sophisticated analysis in reducing auto theft. He said that roughly one-third of vehiclesstolen in the county have the keys left in the ignition. Police have so far warned motorists about unattended vehicles, but will soon begin issuing them $55 tickets.

Task force members are also monitoring General Assembly legislation and a $700,000 budget amendment by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, to pay for auto-theft initiatives. One bill allows audio recordings from bait cars to be used as evidence in prosecuting vehicle thieves. Another requires car-theft victims to make only one court appearance. A witness’ signed affidavit can be used as testimony if further prosecution is needed.

“We don’t have to drag people back to court because we lose them,” said Mrs. Frush, a key sponsor of the bills. “Once you’ve gotten your car back, you want it over and done with.”

Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey has been pushing for tougher prosecution of car thieves, saying parents should pay restitution for damages done by juvenile car thieves and that offenders should be given jail sentences.

“It sends the wrong message to the community, especially young people, when a guy gets caught stealing a car and all he gets is community service,” Mr. Ivey said.

Mr. Ivey said four prosecutors, assisted by an investigator and paralegal, are now specifically assigned from his office to handle auto-theft cases. He said officials are also trying to establish an auto-theft court under one judge for consistent sentencing. He said the court could be established as early as June.

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