Putting a dent in auto theft

November 04, 1994|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Staff Writer

With auto theft reaching epidemic proportions in Maryland, law enforcement agents gathered in Woodlawn yesterday to organize a $2 million-a-year effort to prevent the crime and put more car thieves behind bars.

Their program is based on a successful Michigan effort that helped reduce that state's auto theft rate by 35 percent over the last eight years. While details here have yet to be worked out, officials say the important thing is that auto theft will now be taken seriously.

"There's something really wrong in the system when you can buy a $20,000 car and a juvenile can steal it right from under you," said Lt. Ronald S. Savage, a commander in Baltimore's Criminal Investigation Bureau who joined colleagues from around the state at Martin's West.

The event brought together the new Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, which was authorized by the General Assembly this year with a $2 million budget to help police battle car theft.

"With this council, we're going to do an analysis of stolen cars, how they're stolen and how many are recovered," said Maj W. Ray Presley, executive director of the council and western regional commander for the Maryland State Police. "We'll also adopt . . . methods to educate people on how not to be victims."

Nationally, car thefts have increased by 51 percent since 1985, while thefts in Maryland rose 61 percent, according to a report by the Governor's Commission on Vehicle Theft and Related Crime.

Maryland currently ranks 12th in the nation in total vehicle thefts and ninth per 100,000 population.

Last year, more than 3.5 million motor vehicles were registered in Maryland, and 33,926 were stolen, according to the council. In the first half of 1994, auto thefts were up 21 percent statewide. In Baltimore County, car thefts this year are running 33 percent ahead of 1993.

Police are hoping the new council and the grants it will make to police departments, schools, business and community organizations will make a difference. The money comes from penalties assessed for lapsed or terminated insurance policies and from fees charged for salvaged vehicle certificates.

The funds will be concentrated on public education and theft prevention campaigns, programs to keep juvenile car thieves from stealing again, prosecutors who will deal strictly with auto theft cases and training police to investigate auto thefts more efficiently.

"There is no formula for all of this," Major Presley said. "But this is a start. Do we have a chop shop problem? Do we have an illegal export problem? Or is it mainly juveniles? People assume that it's mainly juveniles, but we don't really know that.

"In fact, 25 percent of the cars stolen in Maryland are never found, which leads us to believe that the cars are being scrapped for parts. That's what this council will find out. A lot of our problem lies with people not locking their cars or leaving the keys in their cars. If we educate people not to do that, we've wiped out 20 percent of the problem right there."

Michigan was the first to start such a program in 1986 after being ranked No. 1 in auto theft rates in 1982.

"It's a program that really works," said Val A. Vitols, executive director of the Michigan Automobile Theft Prevention Authority. "It takes a lot of cooperation and collaboration between insurance companies, legislators, law enforcement agents, citizens and businesses."

Michigan finances its program through a $1 assessment on insured passenger vehicles. Those funds pay for 72 police officers, seven prosecuting attorneys and 15 support staff who deal exclusively with auto theft, he said. By 1992, the last year for which FBI figures are available, Michigan had dropped to 15th place in auto theft.

The state's own s 1993 crime statistics show that the number of automobiles stolen dropped for the eighth straight year.

Last year, programs funded by the Michigan grants recovered 2,222 stolen vehicles with an estimated value of over $17 million, arrested 1,930 thieves and prosecuted more 1,300 arrest warrants, Mr. Vitols said.

"Auto theft is the Rodney Dangerfield of crime," Mr. Vitols said. "It gets no respect. It's not given as high a priority as violent crimes do. If your car gets stolen, people don't worry about it, because your auto insurance will take care of it.

"But auto theft is a real big business that we have to deal with. ," he said. If it wasn't for the [grant] money, there wouldn't be any program and our rates would go soaring again."

San Diego County in California boasts a similar successful program. Drawing investigators from 16 local, state and federal agencies by using county funds, the Regional Auto Theft Team is the first of its kind in California.

Started in 1992, the 34-member team is led by FBI Special Agent Daniel Ryan, who has spent most of his 26-year career investigating car theft.

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