Parked in Anne Arundel County and Annapolis are cars with tempting stuff in plain sight: a GPS unit on the dashboard, a cellphone on the console, a handbag with a wallet visible in it on the floor behind the driver's seat.
But it isn't just would-be thieves looking to see what's in the car and tugging on its door handles. Police are doing it too, in programs aimed at stopping thefts from parked vehicles.
Police from both jurisdictions recently walked through parking lots and neighborhoods, finding numerous cars in which items that would catch a thief's eye were in plain sight: keys, cash, bicycles, financial paperwork, even a washer-dryer unit for an RV. In the recent walk-throughs, only about one in every 10 cars was unlocked, though police say in some neighborhoods that number is likely nine of 10.
"My purse is in there," Kim Harris said when Anne Arundel County police Cpl. Brian Carney asked her whether she had left anything of value in view after she locked her car in the lot at Big Vanilla Athletic Club in Pasadena on a recent evening. "And I was thinking, I should keep it in my trunk," said Harris, of Pasadena.
She knew leaving the purse, still visible under a bag, was a bad idea. "Isn't that dumb?" she told Carney.
Harris moved her handbag into the trunk and hit the remote lock again, getting a reminder from Carney about the importance of not having anything valuable visible in a parked car, whether or not the car is locked.
After she walked away, Carney resumed checking on parked cars, part of a two-year-old countywide prevention program in which officers go car to car to warn drivers that they risk losing whatever goodies they leave in plain sight in their parked cars, whether at their homes, businesses or shopping centers. And if the cars are unlocked, "that's literally an open invitation" for someone to grab the goods effortlessly, he said.
He stuck a small theft-prevention card on the windshields of some of the locked cars with valuables or personal information left visible.
According to the most recent figures in Anne Arundel County, 2010 saw an 11 percent drop from the 4,109 thefts from cars in 2009, and in 2011, there was an additional 13 percent drop from 2010. During that time, police strengthened their prevention push in several ways. The department credits the drop to the education and enforcement efforts.
Annapolis had 265 thefts from vehicles in 2011, a 10 percent drop from 2010 but a slight increase over 2009 and about half the number from 2008. From Jan. 1 to July 20 this year, there were 141 thefts from autos — up from 136 over the same time period a year ago.
Police say arrests abate the problem for a while, but the most helpful thing would be for drivers not to leave anything worth taking in view — that includes charging cords and GPS mounts — and to lock their vehicles.
Similar to the countywide effort, Annapolis police Lt. Brian Antal, with Lt. Mark Seidel, started an initiative this year to have officers go from car to car notifying owners of vehicles, locked or not, with desirable items left in view.
Annapolis officers don't leave a card; they try to visit or call the owner.
"People say they live in a safe neighborhood, they leave the car unlocked on the street," said Officer K. Urban. But thefts from cars have hit upscale communities and streets where crime is rare, he said. Sometimes it's career criminals tugging on door handles for easy pickings as they walk down a street, though sometimes a car window is smashed.
"Oh, I am so embarrassed," Patricia Johnson said when told by Antal and Urban that leaving a GPS, iPad, Coach purse and smartphone visible in her locked car, parked in the Fairwinds community, was a bad idea.
A pastor at a nearby church, she said she had received an email just that morning from a city alderman asking that the church bulletin remind congregants to hide valuables and lock their cars when they park them.