Statistics show that 1991 likely will be another record-setting yearof auto thefts in Howard County, prompting police officials to begina search for the department's first-ever auto theft detective.

A total of 216 vehicles were stolen in January and February, compared to 163 during the same period last year. A record-setting 970 auto thefts were reported in Howard County in 1990.


The new detective, who will be named in April, will specialize incompiling information on where and how auto thieves operate.

County car thefts typically occur at night in large residential parking lots, such as those found in housing developments along U.S. 40, U.S. 1 and Route 175, police said. Cars of choice for thieves have been Honda Accords, Chevrolet Cavaliers, Jeep vehicles and Pontiac Grand Ams.


Many of those arrested in recent years have been repeat juvenileoffenders, police said.

One 14-year-old Baltimore City resident was arrested on auto theft charges for the fifth time last week after a brief car chase in Ellicott City, said Sgt. Gary L. Gardner, a county police spokesman.

"We've seen kids as young as 13, and many of them are in the habit of stealing cars just for a joy ride," Gardner said. "We're hoping the new detective will have an impact on discouraging this kind of thing."

County police also hope detailed documentation of the juvenile car thief's career may carry some clout in court, where they hope to argue for stricter penalties and jail time foreven the occasional joy rider.

In the majority of cases -- viewedby the courts as property crimes -- the juveniles often receive suspended sentences or counseling. But county police say they want to adopt a tougher stance.

"We're a mobile society. If you take someone's car away for even a few days or weeks, it hurts them," Gardner said. County residents, many of whom commute to Baltimore or Washington, depend greatly on their cars, he said.

Insurance rates for all residents are also adversely affected by the rising number of auto thefts.

The majority of the stolen cars are recovered with minimal damage within two weeks of the theft, Gardner said. Other cars end up being repainted and sold, or are stripped for parts at illegal "chop shops" which police suspect may be operating in the U.S. 1 area of the county.


Auto thefts have been steadily on the rise throughout Baltimore and its surrounding metropolitan area in recent years. Maryland was ranked 11th in the country in a 1989 study by the FBI that listedstates according to auto thefts per capita.

Nearby larger counties also are seeing their share of the problem. Anne Arundel reported 1,567 stolen cars in 1990, a 12 percent increase over the previous year. Baltimore County reported 4,270 auto thefts, an increase of about 10 percent.

Baltimore City, where 1990 car thefts were up 20 percent over the previous record-setting year, is believed by police to bethe source of much of the area's auto theft activity. Cars stolen from Howard County frequently turn up in the city, said Philip Goodwin,a Baltimore auto theft detective.

"All the neighboring jurisdictions are having trouble with the kids swiping cars," Goodwin said. "There's really not much we can do. They just take 'em, run 'em, and ditch 'em. It's really too bad when someone gets killed in them."

Most neighboring counties have auto theft squads comprised of several detectives. The news that Howard County police are assigning a new detective to investigate the thefts "is good to hear, but I feel sorry for the guy. One guy's going to have his hands full," Goodwin said.