Many in city signing up to STOP thieves Window-sticker program off to quick start

More than 1,000 take part

Fear of random stops expected to decrease number of car thefts

January 01, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

More than 1,000 Baltimore residents, including a former judge whose Toyota has been stolen four times, have given city police permission to pull over their cars as part of a project aimed at curbing auto theft.

Since the program began in November, district stations throughout the city have been reporting heavy interest. Many people, it seems, don't mind being stopped by police occasionally if it can save their car from being stolen.

"I would feel that the program is really working if I was pulled over," said Alisa Lovera, 26, who lives near Fells Point and parks her Toyota Camry on the street each night. She put her sticker on a few weeks ago.

"It sounded like a very good service that the Police Department was providing to help ensure the safety of your vehicle," Mrs. Lovera said.

Exactly how many people have signed up for the initiative, called STOP (Stop Thief Owner Protected), is unknown, because the nine district stations still are compiling the numbers. But an informal survey showed that most have processed 100 to 200 applications.

"I'm starting to see the stickers on the street myself," said Lt. Ronald Savage, head of the auto theft unit. "It's encouraging. I have one on my personal car."

The program is ideal for city residents who don't normally drive late at night or early in the morning. People who get the stickers put them in their rear windows and sign a waiver that allows police to use the stickers as probable cause for a traffic stop.

Officers stop cars bearing stickers between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The program is mainly a deterrent -- the idea being that potential thieves will not steal a car with a sticker for fear of driving a car flagged for police inspection.

So far, there have been no reports of any car being pulled over -- either with a legitimate driver or a thief. But police said that should change as more and more residents join the program.

"We've been really promoting this," said Lt. Dawn Jessa of the Southwestern District. "Each community association meeting that we attend, we discuss the program. It is advertised in our monthly newsletter."

Retired District Judge Joseph Broccolino said he hopes the sticker program will save his Toyota from being taken. "It seems to be a prize," the 77-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident said, noting that the car has been stolen and recovered four times in the past two years.

He was in the Eastern District station shortly after one theft, and the "desk sergeant said to me, 'They're chasing your car right now.' They caught it."

Mr. Broccolino, a city judge from 1962 to 1973, said he has seen countless auto theft suspects come before him. The teen-ager who stole his car the last time was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

"A lot of people complain about the lenient sentences," he said. "We in America have more people in prison than any other country in the world. I'm not too unhappy with what the judges and the police do. It's just a hopeless situation."

Mr. Broccolino said that in the 1960s and 1970s, the city's police commissioner ordered officers to stop cars randomly to check the drivers. "It was very effective, but, of course, the civil liberties union raised hell about that," he said.

The STOP program is similar to the random stops two decades ago, but this time, people being pulled over are giving their permission. Of course, it could lead to other troubles for the drivers, if for example, they are stopped after they have been drinking.

Lieutenant Jessa said many people who inquired about the program were hesitant to sign up around the holiday season. "We expect an influx after Jan. 1," she said.

Car theft has been a recurring problem for Baltimore and surrounding counties. But initiatives, such as a joint Baltimore County-City Auto Theft Task Force started in 1994, have helped.

Statistics released by the Maryland State Police show that car theft was the only major crime to decline during the first nine months of last year, compared with the same period of 1994.

Statewide, more than 29,000 cars were reported stolen from January to September 1994, compared with fewer than 27,000 last year. During the first nine months of last year in Baltimore, 8,309 cars were reported stolen, a 20 percent drop from same period in 1994, when 10,492 cars were taken.

Most people taking the stickers are elderly and are not normally out after 10 p.m., police said.

Officer Robert Hrica, who works the midnight shift in the Northeast District and lives in Canton, got stickers for his father, grandparents and neighbors. His mother's 1993 Dodge Shadow was stolen around Thanksgiving 1994.

"I haven't seen anybody on the road with it yet," Officer Hrica said. "I think it will act as some kind of deterrent. If [the criminals] see a sticker on the window of the car, maybe they won't bother."

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