Last November, Jennifer Lowery-Bell began sitting in the bay window overlooking her driveway. She was waiting for them to come, a group of 10 to 15 teenagers who routinely case her neighborhood in search of cars to steal. She would sit quietly as they strolled up and down her block with their eyes on her neighbors' cars.
One day, when she wasn't in her usual spot, she got a warning call from a neighbor. So she looked out and saw a band of teenagers trying to take her car.
"I was in the house and the phone rang, and it was my neighbor saying that someone was outside stealing my car, right out of my driveway. I couldn't believe it," she said. "Our neighborhood is currently in crisis, and the police need to do something about it. When I went door-to-door to collect signatures, so many people said they have gotten their cars stolen or almost stolen as well. That's when I knew something had to be done."
Lowery-Bell started a neighborhood watch program, and she also called her congressman, U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D), who represents most of Prince George's County.
Lowery-Bell asked Wynn to help her and her neighbors put some pressure on the Prince George's County police on behalf of the more than 300 residents of Campus Way South. Many of the residents of the neighborhood, just outside the Capital Beltway near Prince George's Community College, complained that the police haven't been very responsive to a rash of car thefts in their neighborhood.
Last Saturday, Wynn organized a community meeting at Kettering Middle School, bringing together police and residents to try to find solutions.
"This is a very serious situation--not just for the individual but for the community as a whole. It affects property values and the overall health of the community," Wynn said at the two-hour meeting. "We decided to have this forum to try to separate fact from fiction and develop strategies to deal with the problems."
There were more than 8,700 auto thefts in Prince George's County in 1999. In neighboring Montgomery County, for the first six months of 1999, there were 1,202 car thefts, police said. In all of 1999, there were about 1,400 car thefts in Virginia's Fairfax County.
Though the Prince George's police could not break down data by neighborhood, they said there have been 75 cars stolen on Campus Way South in the past three years. The road runs through the Campus Way South neighborhood.
Most of Saturday's meeting was spent trying to open the lines of communication that residents complained are strained by their sense that the police don't take car thefts very seriously.
"When I called the police, they seemed uninterested and it took them 20 to 25 minutes to get there. When the officer finally showed up he seemed agitated, like, 'Why am I here? This is petty,' " said Mary Brooks, a neighborhood resident whose 1994 Dodge Caravan was stolen twice in two years. "I don't want to feel like I am annoying the police or be made to feel guilty when I call. I want to feel like they are there to protect me as well as my property."
Mildred Hunt, who has lived in Campus Way South neighborhood for eight years, said the police have produced more excuses than solutions for the problem.
"They act as if it's not important, as if the theft of our property is a minor thing--and if I sound hostile, I am, because I am fed up," she said. "Let's stop hearing excuses about lack of manpower and other pressing crimes and get the job done. Their job is to protect our community from all crime."
Maj. Richard J. Welsh, commander of Prince George's County's 2nd Police District, which includes Upper Marlboro, Glenarden and Greenbelt, said that the department is aware of the car thefts in the neighborhood and is working to curb the problem. But resources are limited, he said. He also said the department is working to dispel the notion that police are unconcerned about car thefts.
"We do care. We don't want to have an adversarial relationship with the residents. We want to work together, but they have to understand that it is a big area to cover with only five officers working shifts to cover it. I would like to say that we will be able to have officers focused in that neighborhood 24 hours for auto thefts, but that wouldn't be honest," he said. "I'm putting as many officers as I can in the area, but we have had a recent rash of armed robberies and that has taken priority. We are trying to make it safe for life and limb. But if you are victim, you don't care about that, and I don't blame you."
Shirley Cooper has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years and recalls the time when she didn't have to keep watch over her car to prevent it from being stolen. She remembers being able to go in the house and leave her car warming up in the driveway with the keys inside. Now, she hardly lets her car out of her sight.
"I've lived here when I wouldn't be afraid to go out to my car at 1 in the morning. Now if I go to my car after 9, I don't feel safe," she said. "Every time I hear a noise, I turn around thinking someone is trying to steal my car."
Police advise that the best way to prevent car theft is to lock the doors and to purchase an anti-theft device, such as a wheel or ignition lock. To report a vehicle theft, call Prince George's County police at 301-499-8000.