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New unit tackles problems residents call their No. 1 crime concern

(Published July 26, 1999)


Staff Writer

The Metropolitan Police Department has started taking long-overdue steps to combat the stolen car problem in the District by putting together a city-wide unit to combat auto theft, something the city hasn’t had in nearly seven years.

In the past two years, over 14,000 cars have been stolen in the District, and in a survey conducted for the police department, residents ranked car thefts the number one crime worry -- above drugs, robberies and homicides. But in recent years, only one officer in police headquarters was assigned to investigate auto thefts.

In early 1992 the city’s auto theft unit was moved out of police headquarters and combined with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s unit in FBI offices in Southwest. As violent crime incidents started rising in the mid-‘90s, less emphasis was put on investigating and closing property crime cases and between retirements and transfers only Detective Danny Straub was left to coordinate auto theft investigations. In many instances, officers in the police districts didn’t even know Straub was doing that job.

"There are a lot of bad guys doing what they do in stolen cars out there," Straub said.

Since the beginning of June, six additional officers, headed by Sgt. Steve O’Dell have been detailed to the auto theft unit in police headquarters. Though they acknowledge that they have a lot of work to do to catch up on the car theft problem in the District, they have been hard at work putting together procedure and protocol for the unit and sending proposals to the chief’s office.

Industry experts applauded the department’s efforts to reduce the city’s car theft rate.

"Cars are a necessity for folks, whether it’s in their personal lives or professional lives," said spokesman Lon Anderson from AAA Mid-Atlantic. "It’s certainly good news for automobile owners in the District."

O’Dell said he wants to get the department to view auto theft as another aspect of the violent crimes in this city. He said his unit will not only focus its efforts on car theft for profit, but also stolen cars used in violent crimes and by repeat offenders.

"I want to stress that stolen autos are a crime enabler," O’Dell said. "They enable criminals to be mobile, to be anonymous and to get out there to be able to do a lot of dirt."

O’Dell said he is currently talking with the Prince George’s County Police Department and federal agencies to try to put together a regional auto theft unit that could operate across state lines.

He said the majority of car thieves in the area are in the District’s and P.G. County’s poorer areas and that the majority of the car theft problem in the Metro area spreads out from there.

Sgt. Russ San Felice, who heads the P.G. County auto theft unit, said that of the 8,580 cars stolen in P.G County during 1998, about 1,400 of them were recovered in the District.

San Felice said repeat offenders present a large problem for the area’s police.

"Things like auto theft fuel the other crimes," he said. "It’s where the kids start out and they graduate to other crimes. Repeat offenders almost always have auto theft in their background."

Nationwide last year, 1.35 million cars were stolen with a total value of $7.3 billion dollars, according to the Insurance Information Institute. District residents pay an average of $993 per year for auto insurance, the second highest auto insurance rates in the country second only to New Jersey, due in large part to the city’s theft rate.

"We used to say that the reason the stolen car rate was so high in the District is because the police are spread so thin," institute vice president Carolyn Gorman said. "They can’t get around to investigating stolen cars."

O’Dell acknowledged that most victims of stolen cars in the District right now are lucky if they get a follow-up call about their car and that getting information from the department about the status of a stolen car report is difficult at best.

"There is going to be very little investigation" in stolen car cases, O’Dell said. "The mechanisms (currently) are broken." He said fixing those mechanisms is his units primary goal.

Straub said that because the unit hasn’t been staffed for so long, basic statistical information about car recovery rates and arrest rates haven’t been kept for most of the decade.

Straub said another part of the problem is that many officers have never received proper training on some of the basics of stolen car investigations. He said the department used to teach courses in auto theft investigation at the police academy, but they stopped doing so in 1988. As a result, many officers are not even familiar with the purposes of a car’s vehicle identification number (VIN).

Police Chief Charles Ramsey made stolen auto investigation part of the curriculum at the academy again as part of his effort to reduce the car theft rate. Last spring, Straub went to the police academy to teach recruits investigative techniques, including how to recognize and track down cloned and fake VINs.

Shortly after joining the police force last spring, Ramsey commissioned a poll of D.C. residents about their views of the police and about the city’s problems. The survey divided concerns into three categories: major crime, social disorder and physical disorder. Stolen cars topped the list of major crime worries among D.C. residents, followed closely by the street drug trade, home break-ins, and attacks and robberies.

O’Dell said that although car theft will probably always happen in the city, there are basic things car owners can do to cut down on the risk of their car being stolen.

"A car thief’s worst enemy is time," O’Dell said. "Whatever you can do as a car owner to put barriers in front of this thief will decrease your chances greatly of having your car stolen."

Auto club spokesman Anderson concurred.

"Be smart where you park your car," he advised. "Lock it up, have appropriate anti-theft devices and hide anything that might be of value in the car."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator