Loss of federal sponsor hobbles D.C. area auto theft team

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010

As police task forces go, the Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement Team -- or WAVE, as it is better known -- was undeniably successful.

The numbers speak for themselves: From 2004 to 2008, auto thefts in the District and its Maryland suburbs fell 42 percent. Prince George's County, which at one time reported more stolen vehicles than the entire state of Virginia, saw a 47 percent reduction.

But now the future of WAVE is uncertain.

The U.S. Marshals Service, the only federal member of the regional task force, pulled out in the fall, saying that combating car theft was not one of its core missions. Other participating agencies included the D.C. and Prince George's County police departments and the Maryland State Police.

The effect has been crippling, many officials say. Because they are no longer deputized by the Marshals Service, local members of the team can no longer cross borders seamlessly to conduct investigations and make arrests. Effectively, enforcement took a step back to a time when Prince George's averaged an auto theft every half-hour.

"How does it impact them? Well, now it's like it was before," said W. Ray Presley, executive director of the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, which provides WAVE with about $300,000 a year for equipment, staffing and other costs. "The WAVE team as we know it is done. . . . They no longer have cross-jurisdictional authority. They can't cross over that line in their investigations as they did before."

That's not to say inter-jurisdictional efforts to combat auto theft are dead. D.C. police have withdrawn from WAVE, but Prince George's police and the Maryland State Police still operate a team of 15 people focused on auto theft, the two agencies said. And Maryland officers still enjoy informal relationships with their D.C. counterparts that make cross-border investigations possible.

The problem is this: Without being deputized by the Marshals Service, officers from Maryland do not have the benefit of federal police powers in the District, and vice versa. If a Prince George's officer, for example, wants to arrest a suspect in the District, he needs to enlist an officer from the D.C. police to do it, then obtain a warrant or juvenile writ to extradite the suspect.

"It's still able to be done," said Capt. Misty Mints, a Prince George's police spokeswoman. "It just takes longer."

Inter-jurisdictional authority was especially useful in combating regional car thefts, Presley said, because almost 50 percent of vehicles stolen from Prince George's or Virginia end up in the District. The federally sponsored WAVE team, he said, allowed officers from other jurisdictions to go into the District, stake out stolen cars and arrest the people who got into them. Often, he said, those arrests led to other car thieves. Without federal backing, conducting such operations is more difficult, he said.

Kristen Mahoney, director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention in Maryland, said WAVE's success in recent years was entirely a product of the officers' being deputized federally. "All of our progress was a direct result of federal deputization," she said.

It remains unclear why the marshals pulled out of such a successful task force.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company