D.C. police face uphill battle to stop thefts from autos

May 17

Thursday morning, a man parked his car at Georgia Avenue and Shepherd Street in Northwest Washington and walked away. As soon as he did, another man went up to the car and began tugging at the door handles.

While bystanders were asking him what he was doing, the car’s owner returned. He called police, and an arrest was made shortly afterward, officials said.

The incident represented success for the vehicle owner and law enforcement in what for the most part has been an uphill battle to reduce what has become one of the most frequently reported crimes: thefts from autos.

Last year, 10,097 such thefts were reported to D.C. police, making up about 40 percent of all larcenies in the city that year.

It is well known that thieves target expensive electronic devices, and residents of the entire area have been warned to keep such devices out of sight when leaving their cars.

But even that is not enough of a precaution, a D.C. police official recently advised people who live and park their cars in the First District, which includes much of Capitol Hill, the near-Southwest area and downtown. Thefts from cars have been a particular problem there this year, Cmdr. Jeff Brown told residents in an online posting. According to police data, there were 652 thefts from vehicles there this year compared with 560 over the same time period last year, a jump of about 16 percent.

“It is not enough” merely to keep valuables from view, Brown said. He urged residents to take the items with them when they leave their cars. He also said that even a handful of change left behind might prove tempting.

Based on arrests, he said, some thieves are attracted by even relatively puny hauls to tide them over, so he urged residents to “please remove your change as well.”

By rough calculation, using the 2010 figure of about 200,000 vehicles registered in the city, the chance of being a victim of this type of crime is about 1 in 20. Cars have been broken into while in lots, garages and driveways as well as on the 1,500 miles of city streets.

The total number of thefts from cars in the city this year has risen about 8 percent, but the figure masks declines in some neighborhoods.

In the Second District, for example, which includes such prosperous areas as Georgetown as well as parts of downtown, police have reported a decline in thefts from cars, from 527 last year at this time to 456 through Friday.

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