Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Council considers expanding county police’s bait cars program

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With the numbers of auto thefts and thefts from vehicles rising, Montgomery County Council members would like to expand the police department’s use of bait cars to catch criminals, but insufficient manpower and resources could limit progress.

Bait cars are used as decoys to lure and apprehend criminals looking to break into cars. A camera is set up inside a car, often with valuables visible on the inside, and if someone breaks in, police are alerted, the suspect is locked inside and the car’s engine can be shut down.

In a Monday work session with the council’s Public Safety Committee, Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg outlined the county’s ‘‘significant” problem with auto thefts and how a successful bait car system might be initiated.

The county police department owns just two bait cars and since the program’s inception in 2004, only one arrest for auto theft was made as a result of their use, said Assistant Police Chief Wayne Jerman. The two bait cars — a 1991 Toyota and a 1995 Honda — aren’t desirable to criminals, Jerman said, so the department will seek about $13,500 to upgrade the Toyota to a new vehicle and buy longer-lasting batteries for the cars, Jerman said.

Police have seen a high amount of newer model Dodge Neons stolen recently, said Lucille Baur, a police spokeswoman.

There are also limitations to how often bait cars can be used because it requires four officers and about three hours to deploy a bait car, Jerman said. Two officers are needed to drop the car off at a site, another is needed to set up the car’s computer and alarm system and another has to monitor the vehicle from the emergency communications center. In addition, the battery to power the bait car system only lasts about three to five days, Jerman said.

Jerman said since there aren’t specific problem areas the police can target, using only two bait cars was not that effective. But at the same time, he was unsure the department would have enough personnel to devote to a substantial increase in bait cars.

‘‘Because it’s a labor-intensive program to deploy the vehicles and right now with our staffing, two is about all we can handle,” he said, adding that adding two cars in addition to the two already might be feasible and would result in crime decreases.

It costs about $5,000 to buy a bait car from a used car dealership that will be attractive to criminals and about $3,000 for the necessary equipment, Baur said.

Examples of successful bait car systems in Prince George’s County, Fairfax County, Va. and British Columbia, Canada, were identified at Monday’s meeting as ones to examine and emulate.

As an example of the bait cars’ effectiveness, Andrews pointed to the system in British Columbia, the largest in North America, and the reported 35 percent drop in auto thefts, between spring 2004 and summer 2007.

Prince George’s County had a 12.1 percent decrease in auto thefts between 2006 and 2007.

According to police crime statistics, auto thefts increased by 14.1 percent countywide, from 554 to 632, over the first quarter of 2008 compared to first quarter 2007. Larcenies, which include thefts from autos, are up 18.3 percent for the first quarter of 2008. Of the 4,240 first quarter larcenies in the county this year, 1,595 were thefts from vehicles. There were 9,047 thefts from vehicles in 2007. Overall, the county has seen stable auto theft numbers between 2005 and 2007, ranging between 2,483 and 2,493 each year.

Montgomery County’s Fourth District has been plagued by car break-ins. There were 51 reported thefts from vehicles between June 22 and July 2 in the Fourth District, after 50 combined between June 2 and June 21, according to crime summaries released by police. In the following week, there were 39 reported thefts from vehicles between July 7 and July 16 in the Fourth District, according to crime summaries. There were 794 total larcenies for first quarter 2008 and 284 were thefts from vehicles.

Adam Pagnucco of the Forest Estates Community Association said his neighborhood has experienced problems with car break-ins and last November. Forest Estates and nine other community associations wrote a letter to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to request bait cars be considered.

‘‘The council knows full well over 4,000 households that want this,” he said. ‘‘... I have to give them credit because they never forgot our idea.”

Wayne Goldstein, president of the Kensington Heights Citizens Association, also signed the letter to Leggett and said the county response has been too slow.

‘‘This is a pretty leisurely response,” he said. ‘‘All they are doing now is talking, they are not acting. There has been lots of time to talk and talk and it should now be in the acting stage.”