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Following county trend, Laurel seeing fewer car thefts

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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.

Nichols believes changes in local laws has helped lower vehicle theft rates as well. For example, auto theft victims are no longer required to appear in court and stricter regulations are in place for vehicle recyclers.

"In the past, we had more tow trucks in Prince George's than those who were licensed to tow vehicles. Some of those with tow trucks, not a model second vehicle for a family, could take a couple of stolen vehicles to a recycler daily and make a lot of money," Nichols said. "The regulations on recyclers were tightened where if a stolen vehicle is found at a recycler's business, they could lose their license."

According to McLaughlin, another component in the mix in the battle to reduce auto thefts is a lot of old-fashioned policing. He said he places plain-clothes officers on the streets and especially in places where they notice an area is experiencing a spike in auto thefts.

Among auto thefts still occurring in Maryland, 2000 Dodge Caravans and 1996 Honda Accords are the top models being stolen. McDonold said 50 percent of vehicles are still stolen because the owner left the keys in the ignition, most often when paying for gas or buying coffee at a convenience store, or during winter when drivers are warming up their cars and leave them unoccupied. County officials are trying to cut down on this by making it illegal to leave an idling vehicle unattended.

One area where officials said there has not been much progress made is the chop shop industry, run by professionals who have operated out of the county for many years now.

"Chop shop operations are up, and they are more organized — not just locally, but nationally," McDonold said.

In Nichols' opinion, "The only way to fix chop shops is stepped-up enforcement. You have to find a way to increase enforcement, which is part of the problem."

On the bright side, McDonold said more funding is being made available so jurisdictions can continue to aggressively tackle the auto theft problem. The Maryland Auto Theft Prevention Council has a $2 million budget to give grants to jurisdictions statewide for preventive programs. Those programs could range from public awareness campaigns to training, funding for the State's Attorneys Office, programs aimed at juveniles and grants to law enforcement agencies.

"We have 19 grantees currently, and the amounts they receive vary," McDonold said.

Last month, auto theft council officials increased funding to Prince George's County by 70 percent for its' auto theft prevention efforts.

"Prince George's received a $110,000 increase for a total of $270,000. They have done an excellent job in decreasing auto thefts, but they still lead the state, so they still are trying to get the numbers down even more," McDonold said.

Although the drop in auto thefts in the county is significant, the recovery rate of vehicles stolen is dismal. McDonold said in the 1990s, the recovery rate for stolen vehicles was 75 to 90 percent. Currently, it is only about 52 percent, because he said professional chop shops are still thriving. Losses due to auto theft in 2011 alone totaled $4.5 billion.

"Auto theft is still considered a major issue with more professional thieves out there," McDonold said. "The numbers are going down, but people should still take precautions and be careful where they park."

Top 10 vehicles reported stolen in Maryland in 2011

2000 Dodge Caravan

1996 Honda Accord

2000 Honda Civic

2006 Ford Pickup (full size)

2011 Toyota Camry

2010 Toyota Corolla

1999 Ford Crown Victoria

1996 Nissan Maxima

1999 Plymouth Voyager

2002 Nissan Altima

Source: National Insurance Crime Bureau

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