Auto Theft in Prince George's | A Special Report

An 'Epidemic' Spurs Search for Remedies

In a parking lot in Suitland, police question three people in connection with stolen license plates.
In a parking lot in Suitland, police question three people in connection with stolen license plates. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005

If you live in Prince George's County, chances are that you know someone who has walked outside a home or workplace to find an empty space where a car had been. Perhaps that person was you. If so, you've got company, and plenty of it.

More than half of the vehicles stolen in Maryland are taken in this county, and they're being stolen faster than one every half-hour, according to police data.

At a time when vehicle theft is decreasing across the Washington region, including in Montgomery County and the District, Prince George's has seen the number of vehicle thefts nearly double since 2000, according to the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council.

In fact, there were more car thefts reported in Prince George's last year than in the all of Virginia. Nearly 18,500 cars were stolen in the county, compared with about 17,300 in Virginia.

"There is so much auto theft it has become an epidemic," said Capt. Russell San Felice, commander of the violent crime task force for the Prince George's police, which includes car thefts.

In addition, carjackings -- in which a car is forcibly taken from a person -- have also increased sharply in Prince George's. More than half of all carjackings in the state occur here. There were 563 carjackings in Prince George's last year, compared with 492 elsewhere in Maryland.

County and law enforcement officials are not blind to the problem. In recent months, they've stepped up efforts to reduce auto theft and carjackings, creating an auto theft task force and urging people not to leave their keys in the ignition when they're away from the car. So far this year, the county has seen a 16.6 percent reduction in auto thefts compared with the same period last year -- 4,280 cars have been taken this year; 5,134 were taken last year. The theft numbers surpass those for the entire year in almost every other county and city in the state.

Vehicles are stolen for a variety of reasons, law enforcement officials say. Some are taken by kids who want to joy ride, others by criminals who want a vehicle to commit a robbery. Still others are sold for parts or exported to other countries for resale. The makes stolen most frequently, in descending order, are the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Dodge Caravan, Chevrolet Caprice and Dodge Stratus. Officials say the ignition switches on those cars are the easiest to manipulate.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson last week lauded the police department for the 16.6 percent decrease. But the county has been criticized by some for not doing more to combat the problem.

Last year, 284 people were charged with car theft in the county, an arrest rate of 1.5 percent. "From our standpoint, there's no accountability in Prince George's County," said W. Ray Presley, executive director of the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, which tracks auto thefts across the state. "You can set up shop and nobody is going to bother you."

Presley said that nearby jurisdictions in recent years have made major efforts to fight car theft, while Prince George's hasn't dedicated as many resources. The result, he said, is that the county has become more attractive to criminals looking to steal vehicles.

"When you have a county or a city putting pressure on vehicle thefts, where do the criminals go?" Presley said. "Like water, the path of least resistance."

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