Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007

Residents request new police methods to stop auto thefts

Letter follows spike in east county

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Residents in eastern Montgomery County neighborhoods have asked the county to take more proactive steps to prevent car thefts and thefts from autos, just weeks after police launched their own campaign to alert residents on ways to prevent themselves from becoming victims.

But residents and police say there is always more the other side can do to help.

Auto thefts and thefts from autos have increased in the area north of the Beltway on Georgia Avenue and south of Dennis Avenue in Wheaton, said Lt. Paul Starks, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department.

As of Nov. 30, there have been 66 thefts from vehicles and 41 stolen vehicles in the area, a 60 percent and 56 percent increase in each category, respectively, compared to last year, according to Starks.

With the increase, nine community associations have sent a letter to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) asking that police look into other forms of theft prevention.

‘‘While no one of our neighborhoods has been targeted constantly, all of us have experienced rashes of thefts,” the Nov. 19 letter states.

The letter also asked Montgomery County to use bait cars to deter auto thefts. Bait cars include video cameras and valuables to draw criminals in. The technique is being used by Arlington County in Virginia.

However, Starks said Montgomery County Police do use bait cars, but the department does not advertise the program. Although people might say getting the word out would deter thieves, Starks said police are using the cars to catch the thieves.

In the meantime, residents worry about theft. Dan Chandler said his Toyota RAV4 was stolen about a month ago from his street. Since he does not have a driveway, Chandler said parking on the street is the only choice.

Chandler said he always locks his car, but it is very likely that once inside, the thieves found the spare key Chandler keeps inside and drove away with it.

‘‘Even though no one was hurt, it’s scary to think there are people in front of your house willing to steal your car,” he said.

Chandler plans to buy another vehicle with extra security features. But he also said police could do more to prevent the thefts from happening.

‘‘I think the bait car idea is a fantastic one,” Chandler said. ‘‘It doesn’t put anyone at any significant risk. ... Just knowing that they might be recorded, that the car might have a camera, that might be a significant deterrent.”

Stephanie Rigaux, who lives in a Kensington neighborhood, said her sports utility vehicle was stolen last winter. She said she had left her purse and a spare set of car keys in her car.

Rigaux says many of her neighbors may be relaxed about locking their cars or removing their valuables, but she still believes that police could be doing more to target the criminals.

‘‘It seems to me that it puts the onus on the victim,” she said about current police techniques.

Shawn Marie Jarosz, president of the Forest Estates Community Association in Silver Spring, said she’s just lucky that nothing has happened to her vehicle yet.

‘‘We are doing all the things that police recommend that we do, but we need one more step,” she said. ‘‘We need more involvement [from the community] and other tactics by police to help us help ourselves.”

Last month, several police districts began a new initiative to warn residents about leaving valuables in their cars. When officers see items left in cars that thieves could steal, they send postcards to owners’ homes listing when police saw the vehicle and what items were left in plain sight.

The Forest Estates association has also organized a neighborhood watch group and has checked lights on streets where break-ins or thefts are more prevalent.

‘‘We’ve seen it be successful in other communities,” Jarosz said of the neighborhood watch team. ‘‘It deters crime [and] gives us a sense that [thefts] are being taken seriously.”