Police at BWI go undercover to stop theft Reports of stealing decrease as security is increased at airport

'Education is the key'

Brochure with tips offered to travelers to protect themselves

July 12, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

With a bag slung over his shoulder and a fanny-pack around his waist, Manuel Crew prowls the corridors of Baltimore-Washington International Airport almost daily, blending in with bustling travelers, looking for unattended bags and people-watching.

Occasionally, he will stop someone like the man in the suit absent-mindedly peering out the window, his bag perched on a bench 20 feet away.

"Is that your bag?" Crew asks, pulling out police identification from his back pocket. "You might want to keep it by your side."

Sergeant Crew heads a small force of detectives who lurk in the background at BWI playing the part of harried travelers while watching for baggage thieves and pickpockets.

The importance of the detectives grows in tandem with BWI's increase in passenger volume. With more passengers comes the likelihood of more airport thievery, Crew says, which spurred the airport to double its staff of undercover detectives last year and to increase the number of police officers sent for special training. This month, Maryland Transportation Authority police based at BWI also are handing out brochures warning passengers of dangers.

Such strategy may be working. While more passengers are moving through the terminals -- 14.1 million in 1997 compared with 13.5 million in 1996 and 14.7 million expected this year -- baggage theft and pickpocketing have dropped over the past two years.

In 1995, BWI received 207 reports of stolen baggage and missing wallets. Last year, the number dropped to 78, and the decrease appears to be continuing this year, Crew said.

Duane McGray, president of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network, an organization of airport-based police departments, said hedoesn't have information on how BWI ranks nationwide in airport crime. But he said all airports have been putting more emphasis on halting baggage thefts and pickpocketing.

"Twenty-five years ago, most security at airports was just exactly that -- low-paid security people," McGray said. "It used to be that most airport security people were not police officers. Now we've got police departments there, and they're striving to be professional."

The BWI police staff has 104 officers and civilians. Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports have a total of 165 officers -- 21 of whom are assigned to investigations and special operations geared toward crime prevention, said Tara Hamilton, a Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority spokeswoman.

Crew said police at the three airports often work together, meeting monthly to share information on crime-fighting tactics and on rings of thieves that travel from airport to airport.

Striking in twos

Some thieves strike in twos, with one person distracting the victim by striking up a conversation or asking for directions while the other casually walks by and swipes the unattended bag, Crew said.

Crew said thieves also often loiter at baggage claim areas, pick bags off the carousel and leave. He watches baggage claim areas closely on his airport patrols.

"A lot of times, I watch for people who hang back and don't seem to be paying attention to the bags," Crew said. "They seem to be paying more attention to the passengers than anything else around them. Or if they go back and forth [in the baggage claim area] because usually [travelers] will know where their bags are coming."

Richard Schneider, 56, a retired telecommunications specialist from Upper Marlboro, was a victim of a thief who stole three of his family's four bags from BWI's baggage claim area in May 1996. He said he and his wife had arrived at BWI in the late afternoon on a US Airways flight from Chicago and made a trip to the restroom before going to the baggage claim area.

By then, he said, their bags -- carrying thousands of dollars worth of clothes, souvenirs and irreplaceable pictures -- were gone.

After a six-month investigation, Crew and his detectives arrested a Baltimore man in November 1996 and charged him with 10 counts of felony theft and two counts of conspiracy to commit theft. Crew found some of the Schneiders' belongings among 40 pieces of luggage filled with jewelry, clothing, books and personal items after obtaining a warrant and searching the suspect's house before the arrest.

"Anything [BWI detectives] can do to reduce the probability of these things happening is good," said Schneider, who said his family got back a small portion of their belongings. "I hope that they're successful in their efforts."

Most travelers don't consider airport crime because they're distracted by the nitty-gritties of traveling, Crew said. This makes them more susceptible.

"We always hear the same story" from passengers who've had belongings stolen at BWI, Crew said. " 'It was so quick,' 'I just left it for a minute,' 'I just turned my back.' We have to get the traveling public to be more aware of what's going on."

Pamphlet with tips

BWI's new pamphlet is its first effort to provide information on the topic directly to travelers. "Your Guide to Safe Airport Travel" suggests such tips as "Always arrive early. You are most vulnerable when rushed" and warns of pickpockets who distract by throwing money on the floor.

"I'm glad to hear that someone is [patrolling the airport] but I give the brochure minimum value," said Ed Kaarela, the passenger Crew stopped near the Southwest ticket counters on a recent patrol to warn about his carry-on.

Crew said, "This is just to get [travelers] to pay more attention to their surroundings. Education is the key."

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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