The number of auto thefts in Prince George's County has dropped by more than 54 percent over the last five years, according to state figures. Laurel Police Department officials said the city has also seen a decreased number of auto thefts in recent years.
In 2004, auto thefts were at epidemic levels in Prince George's with nearly 50 vehicles stolen daily. That year, more than 18,000 auto thefts were reported in the county, the highest number of stolen vehicles in Maryland.
"In 2011, the last complete year for auto theft numbers, there were less than that many statewide (a total of 15,376)," said John Townsend, AAA Mid-Atlantic's manager of public and government affairs. "The number of vehicles stolen in the county was down 43 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. This is very encouraging news."
Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols, who spearheaded efforts to combat auto theft in Laurel and the county, called the drop in auto thefts "historic."
"This is a remarkable change for the city and county," said Nichols, a Laurel resident who developed a comprehensive plan in 2005 to aggressively address the area's high auto theft rate. "Heightened sensitivity and attention has been given to this problem over the years and the efforts have been successful."
Although the numbers for last year have not been finalized, state officials say they expect to see an additional 15 percent decrease in auto thefts in Prince George's from the previous year when auto thefts dropped to nearly 5,500.
In 2003, Laurel police reported 281 vehicles were stolen in the city. That number has dropped consistently since then, with 219 vehicles stolen four years ago;153 in 2010; and 122 in 2011. Maryland Auto Theft Prevention Council officials said the unofficial total for last year is 92.
"State, federal and local law enforcement collaboration is a big key behind the drop," Townsend said.
A lot of that collaboration took place through a county auto theft task force, formed in 2004, that along with Nichols, developed and implemented a comprehensive plan to tackle auto theft. In addition, officers from the county and State Police, Metropolitan Police and Laurel Police participated in the Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement Team, or WAVE, which allowed police to conduct auto theft investigations and make arrests outside of their jurisdictions. Police from several surrounding areas were assigned to serve on the WAVE Team to investigate auto thefts only, including an officer from Laurel.
"WAVE is a great group and we still participate, but we no longer have an officer on the team because we needed them on patrols here," said Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin. "We still assist them if something happens in Laurel."
Chris McDonold, deputy director for the Maryland Auto Theft Prevention Council, said WAVE is still effective and that the Charles County Sheriff's Office added a deputy to the team this year.
Those interviewed agreed that in addition to the collaborative efforts of various law enforcement agencies, the increased prosecution of car thieves, especially juveniles, who were a large part of the problem, has also been a major factor in bringing down the auto theft rate. According to Nichols, when he was a juvenile court judge, 20 or more youths were prosecuted on the one day a week he handled auto theft cases.
"It's now down to about two or three because the courts and State's Attorney's Office sent a good, consistent message that they would be prosecuted," Nichols said. "That approach worked. It was time for business as usual to stop and we did it, and it hasn't come back at the level it was before."
McLaughlin said that in Laurel, teenagers are still stealing some vehicles for joy rides, but added, "We're seeing decreases there because they are being prosecuted and jailed more."
Another factor in the decreased number of stolen vehicles that Nichols and other officials point to is that automakers are installing more anti-theft devices on vehicles to make it harder for thieves to steal them. Many newer vehicles are equipped with systems such as LoJack, which can track a vehicle's movement, and OnStar, which can track, remotely lock a vehicle's door and shut the engine off.
"It's unbelievable how successful this technology has been in helping us cut down on vehicle thefts," McLaughlin said.
Automobile manufacturers are also etching vehicle identification numbers on several areas of vehicles, making it harder for the parts to be sold on the black market.
"This combination (of things done by automakers) is eliminating the nonprofessional thief because manufacturers are making cars harder to steal," McDonold said.
In addition to the high-tech vehicles, technology available to police officers has contributed to their success in decreasing auto theft activity in the area.
"We have three units in Laurel equipped with tag-reading technology that can detect within seconds if a vehicle is stolen. We can read tags by being mobile or stationery. We may park the tag-reading car on Route 1, for example, and check every car going by," McLaughlin said.