A group of car thieves, ages 14 to 16, was in a classroom at the D.C. Armory on a recent morning, accompanied by mothers and a grandfather. A court had ordered the boys to attend a six-month-long Operation Prevent Auto Theft workshop, and this was Day One.

"Tell me why you're here," Inspector Lillian Overton, commander of the D.C. police youth division, said to the group. A mother started to answer, but Overton waved her off. "Not mamas. Kids."

A boy finally mumbled, "UUV."

That's "unauthorized use of a vehicle," a crime that has grown in recent years from an occasional inconvenience in the Washington area to a deadly epidemic. Even law enforcement officials are not immune. Over the weekend, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey's Ford Crown Victoria was stolen from a street near his home in Southwest Washington.

And to hear juveniles in the car theft workshop tell it, a Crown Vic is not one of the easier cars to steal. Taking one -- and a police chief's at that -- almost certainly earns the thief his props among peers.

The OPAT workshop is part of the District's effort to change the mind-set of convicted juvenile car thieves. Nineteen boys were supposed to be in the class, but one had been rearrested and jailed for car theft.

"Parents, raise your hands if you trust your kids," Overton said.

A mother's hand shot up, but not to indicate her trust. "I sleep with my damn keys under my pillow," she said. "I don't trust him at all. I can't find my money for always having to hide it from him."

During the next six months, Overton said, the boys would regain their parents' trust by learning how to build character and self-esteem. "Trustworthiness, integrity, doing the right thing whether someone is watching or not -- that's what it means to be a man," she said.

The parents, mostly single mothers, will attend monthly "family strengthening sessions," and the boys must perform a variety of community services, including holding free carwashes for residents whose cars have been stolen. Failure to complete the program would result in revocation of probation and reinstitution of jail time.

"How many times have you all been arrested?" Overton asked.

She already knew but wanted to see whether the boys would tell the truth. One said twice; another said five or six times.

When a boy said he had been arrested only once, his mother chimed in. "Once I got me a golf club and started wearing out that [butt], he stopped that," she said, confident, it seemed, that a beating would correct her son's behavior.

But Overton knew the troubles ran deep, and if the prospect of dying in a high-speed car crash or being shot by police in pursuit wasn't enough to scare the boy straight, an angry mom with a golf club probably wouldn't either.

"Who knows what the civil rights era was?" Overton asked.

The boys looked down, avoiding eye contact. Overton asked each one to give his name and answer the question. Only one could give more than his name. It was Martin.

"Like Martin Luther King," Overton said. "Oh, that's good. What was the civil rights era?"

"A war?" he guessed.

Little wonder, Overton noted, that the boys appear not to value their freedom; they had no knowledge of history to give meaning to their lives.

She hoped that would change. Come December, she expected the boys to be more enlightened, their horizons broadened. A trip to the Adirondacks was planned for next month, offering most of the boys a chance to get out of the Washington area for the first time.

If stealing cars was the boys' way of getting away, then Overton and her OPAT staff would show them a better way. But she was under no illusions about the difficult task ahead.

"It seems many of you think you're getting away with something," Overton told them. "But much of what we do as police is scoop boys like you up off the sidewalk after someone puts a bullet in their head. Right now, you guys are out of control, and this city will bury you if you don't straighten up."

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com