Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Activists work to limit thefts from vehicles at gas stations

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Residents and police are taking to the streets to alert motorists to a crime of opportunity that has struck gas stations in recent months.

According to county police, thieves have been snatching valuables from cars while motorists are pumping gas. The incidents have prompted a public education campaign by community activists and District 2 police.

Members of the Kettering-based activist group Community Public Awareness Council and the District 2 Community Resource Team have put up posters and handed out pamphlets to motorists at gas stations in recent weeks alerting them to the need for greater vigilance.

The efforts to inform residents of the need to keep a watchful eye on their vehicles and possessions while at local gas stations will continue over the next month, said Phil Lee, director of C-PAC.

‘‘This is a crime of opportunity and, with community awareness, it’s an opportunity we can take away from the criminal element,” Lee said. ‘‘Information and education is how we are going to prepare people to stop this from happening.”

The Community Resource Team is comprised of several District 2 officers who work closely with Neighborhood Watch groups within the district.

C-PAC works to strengthen ties between the community and police.

Theft s from autos rose in District 2 from approximately 2,000 cases in 2006 to approximately 2,300 cases in 2007, according to Cpl. Diane Richardson, a spokeswoman for the county police department.

The District 2 policing area includes Largo, Mitchellville, Kettering, Lanham, Glenn Dale, Seabrook, Bowie and Upper Marlboro.

Lake Arbor resident Sandra Pruitt said she has noticed an increase in the number of community members complaining of cars being broken into and possessions stolen.

‘‘We didn’t use to have this kind of stuff happen,” Pruitt said. ‘‘I’ve been here for 17 years and we didn’t use to have problems like this.”

Lee said the thefts at gas stations frequently involve older women, whose purses are being snatched from their seat when they are paying the cashier or pumping gas.

He said thieves have been more inclined to target vehicles with larger items including CD players, DVD players and GPS navigational equipment.

‘‘This theft of ladies’ purses at gas stations is a new kind of crime,” Lee said. ‘‘It’s a crime of desperation and it’s becoming a big problem.”

Cpl. Henry Tippett, a spokesman for the county police department, said the information dispensing effort also includes the distribution of fliers at shopping centers and District 2 officers attending community meetings to discuss with residents the need to remain vigilant around gas stations.

Tippett said officers also have begun to talk to residents about the need to record the serial numbers of all electronics in their cars and pass that information on to police.

The information is added to a nationwide database that can then identify the possessions as yours in the event that it is stolen, Tippett said.

Sharon Taylor, spokeswoman for police chief Melvin C. High, said that with increased community awareness, the thefts can be halted.

‘‘It’s one of those things we can stop completely by telling people to be more aware of their surroundings and to just be more cautious,” Taylor said. ‘‘We simply need to have people pay more attention and be more vigilant around gas stations.”

E-mail Jonathan Stein at jstein@gazette.net.

Prevention tips

Have your cash or credit card ready before you get to the service station.

Keep your purse or wallet behind the driver’s seat and out of sight

Be aware of your surroundings both before and after you pay and pump your gas.