The rash of car thefts reported in Baltimore five months ago has continued unabated into the summer, as statistics released yesterday show a rising trend that police blame on teen-agers looking for a quick thrill.
In March, city police expressed concern because auto thefts jumped 44 percent compared with the first three months of last year.
The situation has only gotten worse. Some 6,725 car thefts were reported in the city from January to June -- a 51.1 percent increase compared with the 4,450 car thefts reported during the first half of last year, city police reported.
"It's joy riders," said Detective Philip Goodwin, head of the six-member auto theft unit. "That's where the problem is. But that's where the problem was last month, and the month before."
Of the 1,926 people arrested on auto theft charges, 1,181 -- 61 percent -- are juveniles. Some 6,300 stolen cars have been recovered Detective Goodwin said.
Until last month, the auto theft unit had only three officers who performed administrative duties and were unable to go out onto the streets, Detective Goodwin said.
All six members of the beefed up unit are available for field work, he said, adding that the unit is concentrating on professional car thieves while leaving the joy-riding problem to district commanders.
One commander, Maj. Barry W. Powell, of the Northwestern District, said he has earmarked overtime money for a task force to combat car thefts.
"We have found there is no discrimination in this district to the type of car they will steal," Major Powell said. "Everyone is at risk."
Overall, major crime in the city increased 3.2 percent during the first half of the year. That includes homicides, forcible rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults and burglaries.
The number of homicides decreased 18 percent -- from 172 during the first half of 1993 to 141 during the same time this year.
But 28 homicides have been recorded in the city since July 1, bringing this year's total to 169 as of yesterday, compared with 203 at the same time last year.
Last week, 11 people were slain -- including five on July 27.
On July 27, the city was 40 murders behind last year's pace. As of yesterday, the gap had narrowed to 34.
"The last two weekends can show how quickly the gap can close," said Sam Ringgold, the Police Department's chief spokesman.
But Mr. Ringgold said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier is pleased with the overall numbers, saying his new initiatives and drug raids -- such as the two high-profile sweeps through two East Baltimore neighborhoods -- have paid off.
"It is clear that had we not had an increase in the number of car thefts, we would be looking at an overall decrease," Mr. Ringgold said.
The number of aggravated assaults -- including nonfatal shootings -- also rose from 4,079 in 1993 to 4,326 -- a 6.1 percent increase. While public attention is often riveted on the homicide rate, criminologists use aggravated assault figures to paint a picture of the level of violence on the streets.
Forcible rapes rose 6.7 percent -- from 300 during the first half of last year to 320 from January to June of this year.
Mr. Ringgold said the department is actively addressing the situation. Mr. Frazier has increased the number of detectives in the depleted sex offense unit from two to six since he started in February.
But the overriding concern in the department is auto thefts. Mr. Ringgold said the auto theft unit has been beefed up and he complained that juveniles keep repeating their crimes.
"There doesn't seem to be a lot to keep them from doing it again," Mr. Ringgold said.
Auto theft across Maryland also is a problem. From January to March, 9,154 cars were reported stolen in Maryland, up from 7,673 cars stolen during the same period last year, state police records show.
For all of 1993, 33,926 cars were stolen; 24,728 were recovered and 3,410 juveniles arrested. It amounted to $70 million in losses.