Metro D.C. Plans to Put an Eye in the Sky to Stop Car Thieves

by Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post

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.

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