Welcome to Prince George's County.

That was my sour thought when I noticed my car missing from the parking lot outside my apartment complex one rainy morning in August, a year after I had moved to Temple Hills from Calvert County.

I was angry as I walked back to my apartment to call the police, but after speaking with the unit assigned to handle vehicle thefts, I became resigned to my fate.

After taking down my particulars, the officer on the other end of the line matter-of-factly told me that no officer would be dispatched to the scene of the crime. The insurance company, the repair shop, the car rental company and the tow truck driver I would meet later during the saga of my stolen car exhibited a similar lack of interest in the crime. No wonder car theft is up -- way up -- in Prince George's.

In 1999, 7,546 thefts were reported in the county. By 2002 that number had almost doubled, to 14,729. Last year 15,338 vehicles were stolen. With 8,486 thefts already reported in the first half of this year, 17,000 thefts are not out of the question for 2004.

After three days, I got a call from my insurance company. My Jeep Cherokee had been recovered and was in the police impoundment lot. When I saw the car, it was obvious that someone had had a party. Cassette tapes were strewn about the interior, along with wrenches and screwdrivers from my toolbox. A brightly colored squirt gun had been left on the back seat. Kids.

The good news was that the thieves had done little damage. They apparently knew their business because they didn't need to break windows or door latches to get in. My ignition switch was stripped cleanly from the steering column -- work worthy of a merit badge in the Thug Scouts.

It turned out that my 10-year-old vehicle is on the FBI's 10 most-stolen-cars list, so I shouldn't be surprised to find it missing again one of these days. I haven't installed an electronic security system -- I already hear too many of those obnoxious devices going off in parking lots for reasons that have nothing to do with attempted theft. But I did buy an anti-theft device to lock the steering wheel.

Here is how bad the car-theft problem has become in Prince George's: According to the FBI's uniform crime statistics, nationwide the vehicle theft rate is 433 per 100,000 inhabitants. Cities of more than 250,000 people have the highest rate of car theft: 911 per 100,000 people. The rate in Prince George's County in 2003 was 1,893, and this year the county is on track for about 2,095 vehicle thefts per 100,000 people.

And it gets worse. Prince George's has 15 percent of Maryland's population, but 42 percent of the state's vehicle thefts. The Baltimore metropolitan statistical area has 3.25 times the population of Prince George's but 2,300 fewer thefts. Prince George's County is a go-to kind of place if you want to grab a car.

If you talk to the police, they say they have programs for countering vehicle theft, such as a regional task force that cuts across jurisdictional boundaries and a registration program whereby if your vehicle is being driven outside a time frame you give to the police, police can pull the vehicle over. Clearly, these programs are not working.

County police say they are frustrated by how few convictions are gained against the suspected thieves they do catch and that an understaffed force is unable to keep up with the crimes. In other words, don't expect a crackdown on car theft.

So I am thinking of bidding goodbye to Prince George's County. Less than three months after my car was stolen, a neighbor told me he spotted several guys trying to get into my car again. He scared them off, but my clearly visible steering-wheel lock obviously was no deterrent.

One person told me I should disconnect the battery every time I park the car. Then, unless the thieves think to pop the hood, the damage probably will be limited to a torn-out ignition switch. Then I could hot-wire my car to get it going again. I am sure some people in the county could show me how to do that. But, why stop with the battery? Why not take my distributor cap inside every time I park? Or let the air out of one of my tires? Maybe I could rig the air bag to deploy when the ignition switch was removed, but then, that might harm the thieves. And that would be against the law.

-- Floyd B. Johnson

floydjohnson@comcast.net