During a June meeting of leaders from Baltimore's law enforcement and judicial circles, city police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts gave a report on crime that included a surprising statistic.
Half of all cars stolen in Baltimore had their keys left in the ignition, he said. The comments were made as he informed officials that car thefts had increased 4 percent compared with the same period last year.
This month, he repeated the same "50 percent" estimate to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which includes local judges, prison officials, federal and state prosecutors.
Police say city drivers have a tendency to leave cars running outside convenience stores, especially in winter. Some also double park and leave their car engines on while they run into rowhouses on narrow streets where there is no available parking.
It's not just happening in Baltimore. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that "40-50 percent of vehicle theft is due to driver error, which includes leaving vehicle doors unlocked and leaving keys in the ignition or on the seats," according to a vehicle theft prevention guide.
But are there actual statistics that match those estimates? The National Insurance Crime Bureau said it does not know how many cars are stolen across the U.S. with the keys inside.
When asked about the statistic, police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk clarified Batts' remarks, saying nearly 19 percent of vehicles stolen this year in Baltimore had keys inside. That's 358 of the 1,933 vehicles reported stolen.
But that rose to 50 percent in some areas of the city last winter, Kowalczyk said.
When car thefts spiked in the winter months, police did district-by-district snapshot studies of how cars were being stolen during certain weeks. At least two districts reported that half the cars stolen had keys inside.
Baltimore police Lt. Craig Hartman, commander of the Baltimore Regional Auto Theft Team, said that to his officers, it doesn't much matter how cars have been stolen; his team just focuses on recovering them. About 68 percent of all vehicles stolen in the city are recovered, he said.
Regardless of where the statistics stand, Hartman said, most car thefts are crimes of opportunity, and an unoccupied running car is an easy mark.
"Please don't leave the keys in them," he said.
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