To catch car thieves at Metro's suburban parking
lots, Transit Police are relying on some unusual
equipment: observation towers and golf carts.
Police have purchased three portable white metal
towers that allow an officer to scan an entire parking
area for suspicious activity.
The "skywatch" towers, which cost $28,000 each, can
be hitched to a vehicle, rolled into a parking lot and
hydraulically extended to their full height of about
two stories. At the top of the tower is a small cab
with windows, solar-powered heat and air-conditioning,
a chair and desk. One officer in the tower can cover
as much ground as two or three officers on foot,
Police Chief Barry McDevitt said.
The towers are also equipped with roof-mounted
floodlights and strobe lights.
McDevitt said the towers will be positioned in
parking lots where they're needed most -- four Metro
stations in Prince George's County that have been
magnets for car thieves: Southern Avenue, Naylor Road,
Suitland and Branch Avenue. He said the towers can be
moved to wherever they are needed most and Metro could
buy more if necessary.
Metro also purchased five golf carts and slightly
modified them for police use at a cost of $4,800 each.
The electric golf carts will be used by officers who
step off trains and check lots or garages as part of
their rounds, McDevitt said.
"The golf carts will supplement our officers on
bikes, officers on motorcycles, officers in patrol
cars and unmarked cars," McDevitt said. "We want
customers to know we're out there, protecting their
cars. And we want the thieves to know that, too."
Parking lot crime has become a priority for Transit
Police, who reported that crimes in Metro lots jumped
59 percent last year, from 686 in 2000 to 1,088 in
2001. Metro owns about 57,000 parking spaces, making
it one of the region's largest parking providers.
So far this year, car theft and attempted theft are
up compared with the first three months of 2001. In
the first three months of this year, 204 crimes were
reported in parking lots. During the same time last
year, there were 186.
But there were fewer crimes reported in March than
there were in March 2001, and McDevitt said he
believes the downward trend will continue as police
increase their visibility.
Most of the suspects are bold young thieves set on
stealing commuters' cars for joy riding, police said.
Metro parking lots are particularly attractive to
thieves because most owners park by about 8:30 a.m.
and aren't back before 3 p.m.
Transit Police have hired an auto theft examiner
who looks for theft patterns, interrogates suspects,
contacts pawnshops and cultivates relationships with
auto theft squads. Police also have been distributing
anti-theft literature to passengers, and on Wednesday
were at the Southern Avenue station to answer
questions about preventing car theft.