Maryland officials have started a focused attack on auto theft with nearly $1 million in grants to law enforcement agencies around the state, and another $1 million is on the way.
Nearly a third of the money distributed has gone to Baltimore County, where car thieves have struck hard in the past year.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council have modeled Maryland's program after a plan devised in Michigan, where the vehicle theft rate was once second in the nation. Michigan recorded a significant drop in auto thefts through a combination of public education, arrests and greater consistency in prosecuting car thieves.
"While most people think violent crime is the only concern citizens have, the truth is auto theft has become a tremendous concern nationwide," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
"Over the last 10 years, citizens have taken great preventive steps with burglary, and they have to do the same with their autos," Mr. Sipes said. "Most of the cars stolen are either unlocked for the thief or have their keys in them, often in the ignition."
He said FBI statistics show that vehicle thefts increased by 40 percent nationally from 1973 and 1993, while burglaries declined by 25 percent.
The 1994 figures from the Maryland State Police show a 13 percent increase in vehicle theft. Mr. Sipes said 33,926 vehicles were reported stolen in 1993 and 38,251 last year.
In Baltimore County, 5,000 vehicles were stolen last year, a 15 percent increase. The county's northwestern communities, where a city-based gang of teen-age thieves has been operating, were particularly hard-hit.
Last year, the General Assembly established the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council and the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Fund and authorized an annual expenditure of $2 million to help combat vehicle theft.
The funds come from lapsed or terminated insurance penalties and fees charged for vehicle salvage certificates.
Baltimore and Baltimore County will benefit most from the first phase of the grants. The county will receive about $372,000 and the city about $190,000 for a 14-member joint task force with at least one prosecutor to handle car theft cases.
The city also will use Project STOP, which encourages citizens to display decals allowing law enforcement officers to stop their vehicles without probable cause between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Under that program, police hope to stop and catch car thieves during peak theft hours.
Other agencies receiving grants are:
* The Annapolis Police Department, $18,458 for a public education and awareness program.
* The state police, $150,198 for a crime analysis of statewide auto theft, technical assistance to local departments and creation of an anti-vehicle theft training center.
* The Department of Juvenile Services, $86,703 to identify repeat juvenile offenders in areas of Baltimore for intensive services.
* Montgomery County, $190,977 for a vehicle theft task force, public education, undercover operations and crime analysis.
* Prince George's County, $68,681 for a prosecutor to handle car theft cases exclusively.
* Maryland Crime Prevention Association, $5,616 to train auto theft investigators for statewide assignment.
Other agencies with applications under review include Prince George's Community College, the Prince George's County government and Police Department, the Harford County Sheriff's Department, the Charles County Sheriff's Department and the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission.
Other law enforcement and citizens groups are encouraged to apply.