Hot on the Trail of Young Joy Riders

Officers from the 6th District's auto theft unit arrest a young man for allegedly driving a stolen car with stolen plates.
Officers from the 6th District's auto theft unit arrest a young man for allegedly driving a stolen car with stolen plates. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006

D.C. police officer Mark Lakomec can spot a busted door lock in moving traffic. He can remember a license tag after seeing it for a split second. But his biggest strength is his memory for faces -- the grinning, taunting expressions of the teenagers he sees behind the wheels of so many stolen cars.

They smile and laugh because they think they can outdrive Lakomec and other members of the 6th Police District's auto theft team. It's true: The police often can do nothing more than watch the joy riders' antics because they are prohibited from chasing them. It's just too dangerous to pursue such drivers on crowded city streets.

Lakomec backs off, but he doesn't quit. He'll jot down the date, the time and the license tag number of the hot car that just sped by. He commits the face to memory. And before long, he tracks down the thief and makes his arrest.

It's that kind of tenacity, commanders say, that has helped put a substantial dent in the city's auto theft problem. The 6th District, which covers the area east of the Anacostia River starting north of Good Hope Road, used to be a place where cars and SUVs routinely disappeared from streets and alleys and even church parking lots. Last year, although auto thefts dropped 30 percent there, the district led the city in stolen cars. But this year, it no longer does.

"People work hard for their cars," Lakomec said. "They use them to go to work, to get groceries, to go to the doctor. It's their second-biggest investment, next to their house. It angers me when some kid takes a car for a joy ride. It's not a joy ride to the victim."

Not so long ago, police seemed ineffective at combating the problem. The number of thefts in the city and the 6th District hit all-time highs in 2003: The city was registering nearly 25 a day. Seven vehicles were getting swiped each day in the 6th, an area of houses, rowhouses, public housing complexes, parks and businesses that borders Prince George's County. Joy riders were getting younger and bolder. Thieves were peeling out on cul-de-sacs and darting up and down streets in Benning Terrace, Clay Terrace and Lincoln Heights in processions of stolen cars, sometimes drag-racing. Several bystanders and youths were killed in crashes.

With residents and community leaders clamoring for help, the 6th District's auto theft unit brought in more aggressive officers, including Lakomec. The six-member team was told to find new ways to arrest young offenders.

"We were under siege with auto theft," said Robin Hoey, the district's commander. "We had to get creative without these drawn-out, dangerous car chases."

Lakomec, 31, grew up in New York state and worked as a correctional officer before a friend encouraged him to apply to the D.C. police force. He joined the department in 1999 and was assigned to the 6th District, where he was immediately struck by the prevalence of auto theft.

Lakomec and his partner, Officer Michael Mudd, patterned themselves after narcotics detectives. Just as those detectives pursue the biggest drug dealers, the officers targeted the biggest thieves, teenagers who were believed responsible for 30 auto thefts a month.

They built a network of informants among youths and even some neighborhood drug dealers, who worried that the joy riders were bringing too much police attention to the once-quiet streets.

It was labor-intensive work. When Lakomec and Mudd spotted a juvenile in a stolen car, they tried to remember his face and jotted down information about the car. Then they tracked where the vehicle was eventually recovered. They quickly learned that the youths were lazy. In the fall, the officers spent days tracking stolen cars that had been dumped in alleys directly behind suspects' apartment buildings in Eastland Gardens.

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