Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Volunteer’s eyes help thwart thieves

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Volunteer Alan Cohn patrols a shopping center parking lot in Germantown, looking in parked cars for conspicuously displayed valuables that could attract the attention of thieves.
Alan Cohn tries to stop thieves by thinking like one.

As a volunteer with Montgomery County Police’s 5th District station, he moves through rows of vehicles in Germantown’s parking lots, looking inside for expensive items people have left on the seats and floors.

After he finds a satellite navigation device, satellite radio or pocketbook out in the open, he takes down the tag number. Someday soon, county police will be mailing the vehicle owners a friendly reminder to conceal their valuables or risk losing them to someone who can smash a window, grab the loot and flee within a matter of seconds.

Cohn estimates one-fifth of the cars he has seen have had something in a vulnerable position since he started walking the parking lots about a month ago.

‘‘I see cars that have laptops sitting in the back seat without cases. That’s just asking for it,” Cohn said Thursday as he walked among the vehicles outside the movie theaters in Germantown’s Town Center.

A locked trunk is the best place in a vehicle for valuable property, he said.

Cohn’s strolls through the parking lots began as an effort by Capt. Thomas C. Didone, the 5th District commander, to reduce thefts from vehicles. The 5th District, which encompasses the upcounty area, recorded 437 thefts from vehicles through the first six months of 2008 and six from July 1 to July 6, according to Montgomery County Police records.

Didone said he is glad to have Cohn, a former auxiliary police captain on New York’s Long Island, as a volunteer.

‘‘What he does is what bad guys do,” Didone said. ‘‘He looks inside a car to see if the owner left any valuables worth stealing.”

Cohn said he expects he will soon have obtained the clearance he needs to use the police database that will allow him to match tag numbers with the mailing addresses of vehicle owners. Until he does, the reminders will have to wait, but it’s a wait he believes will be worthwhile.

‘‘Getting it in the mail is a little wake up call. It has more weight than putting something on the windshield,” Cohn said.

Cohn wears a vest and a black shirt identifying his affiliation with the police, but he occasionally has to explain himself to people who grow suspicious when they notice him looking into their car windows, he said.

‘‘Once they hear what I’m doing, they’re real happy about it,” he said, adding that he still expects a day is coming when someone calls the police before they understand his mission.

Cohn, 46, of Germantown works a regular job as an engineer technician with the Naval Surface Warfare Center in West Bethesda. He said he always wanted to be a police officer and passed a qualifying exam in New York, but chose his current job because it offered more pay.

He said his volunteer work is a way maintaining the bonds he feels with the many law enforcement officers he knows and respects.

‘‘They’re out there putting their lives on the line. Just this little bit of time I’m donating, I hope I’m helping them,” he said.