Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Theft from vehicles easy to do, easy to prevent

Despite security guards and cameras, county parking garages in Silver Spring remain targets for thieves

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Security measures including guards and cameras may help deter theft from vehicles parked in downtown Silver Spring’s nine public parking garages, but the crimes still occur on a consistent basis, police say.

‘‘It’s definitely one of the highest crimes we have,” said Capt. Donald Johnson, commander of the Montgomery County Police Third District, which covers Silver Spring. ‘‘It’s a crime that takes just a few seconds to commit.”

So far, in 2008, there have been 30 reported incidents of theft from vehicles parked in downtown Silver Spring garages, according to police spokeswoman Lucille Baur. Those crimes occurred at all times of the day and almost always involved property that was left in plain sight being stolen, she said. Thieves either break through a window or enter by other means, she said.

Johnson said 30 incidents in three months shows a consistent trend but noted that the Third District experiences some spikes in the number of thefts reported, with many occurring in a matter of days.

Commonly stolen items include laptops, iPods, CDs, GPS systems, clothing or even change left inside a vehicle, Baur said.

Rick Siebert, chief of parking operations for the county Department of Public Works and Transportation, said privately contracted security guards patrol county-owned garages on bicycles, but the guards do not have the authority to place people under arrest.

‘‘If they observe any criminal activity, their first step is to immediately call the police,” he said.

Garages are also equipped with security cameras, Siebert said, but only in specifically targeted areas, such as pay stations.

‘‘It’s very difficult to cover an entire garage with cameras,” he said. ‘‘The cost becomes prohibitive.”

The easiest way to avoid theft, no matter where residents park, is to not leave valuables unattended.

‘‘If items are not left in vehicles, then they can’t be stolen from those vehicles,” Baur said. ‘‘The best way to prevent a car from being targeted is to not leave items inside a vehicle in plain view.”

Mel Tull, Silver Spring’s central business liaison, said safe and reliable parking is vital for downtown businesses.

‘‘We have a lot of people around here who are essential to a retail economy,” he said. ‘‘We have to accommodate their cars when they come here for shopping.”

But Tull said break-ins aren’t what most people are concerned about when it comes to parking.

‘‘The business owners that I talk to, the issue of somebody breaking into a car and grabbing something isn’t that much of an issue,” he said. ‘‘They just want to make sure that when someone comes to be a customer, there’s just readily available parking.”

Johnson said most thefts from cars are committed by groups of two or three, usually juveniles who work in a concentrated area and target cars that are either unlocked or have valuable material in plain sight.

Catching such individuals can be difficult if the crime is not reported right away, he said, but when arrests are made, the individuals responsible can often be connected to other incidents, and officers will execute a search warrant at their home and check local pawn shops, he said.

In February, police in Gaithersburg searched the homes of two people suspected in a series of thefts from cars over several months and found hundreds of items totaling thousands of dollars.

Police in districts throughout the county have done outreach and passed out brochures to inform residents on how to prevent thefts from cars, Johnson said. Some officers have even begun leaving notes on cars found with their doors unlocked or items in plain sight.