The Wash

Vehicle owners and thieves share blame for rising auto thefts in Georgetown

The Metropolitan Police Department is urging drivers to do their part to stop the rise of auto theft in Georgetown after four vehicles were stolen in the first weekend of October.

Delivery driver Dwight Pauling kept one eye on his van as he hauled packages into the FedEx location on M Street NW. Pauling said he wasn’t too worried about anyone stealing the van because he had the key in his pocket, yet he never let the vehicle out of sight.

“It’s not locked right now,” Pauling said through a nervous smile. “But I can look outside and see it.”

It turns out drivers in Georgetown aren’t as safe as they used to be. Auto thefts spiked 250 percent in Georgetown between August and September, jumping from four to 14 cases. There were also four auto thefts over the first weekend of October, matching the number of thefts in the entire month of August. Lieutenant John Merzig of The Metropolitan Police Department said a majority of auto thefts are the result of opportunistic thieves and negligent vehicle owners.

However, auto theft has been a running problem throughout the entire District since the beginning of the pandemic. The Metropolitan Police Department website says thieves steal about 18 vehicles per day citywide. So far this year, nearly 3,000 vehicles have been stolen, that’s 285 more thefts compared to the year before.

But the second district of the Metropolitan Police Department is taking multiple avenues to stop the rise of auto theft in Georgetown. They’ve launched education and enforcement campaigns to bring awareness to citizens and accountability to those responsible.  

On Wednesday, the second district police department held a Coffee with a Cop event outside the Starbucks located on K Street NW as part of their education campaign. Officers mingled with locals to discuss safety in Georgetown. Brochures and signs highlighting what residents can do to protect themselves and their vehicles were made available to all. The signs read: lock your car, take your keys, secure your items.

Educational literature provided by the Metropolitan Police Department explaining to residents the steps they can take to avoid auto theft. (Mike Pesoli/The Wash)

Lieutenant John Merzig told The Wash most of Georgetown’s auto thefts are perpetrated by juveniles who use the vehicles to drive home. 

“The people who are stealing these cars, they’re not taking them to chop shops and all that. We recover almost all of them. It’s like another form of Uber for them,” Merzig said.

When a car is stolen, its license plate number is added into a police plate reader system. The number then gets blasted to officers throughout the district and the perpetrators are usually caught within 24 hours.

Merzig stressed the difference between auto theft and carjacking. Carjacking is a violent crime that can lead to substantial criminal repercussions. But Merzig said Georgetown is combatting auto theft, which is a nonviolent crime of opportunity, often perpetrated by juveniles who do not receive serious sentencing.

Merzig also said an overwhelming majority of the victims are people who leave their keys in their car, running on the street, illegally parked. 

“We’re putting up fliers, everything, doing stuff like this,” Merzig said, gesturing toward the event. “But I don’t think it reaches our target market.”

According to Merzig, the target market is difficult to warn because they are hardworking individuals, people on the go and delivery drivers. 

“I guarantee you the people who had their car stolen in this manner, they’re not going to get it stolen again,” Merzig said confidently. “But the sheer number of people doing deliveries and stuff like that means that it’s not a problem we can really cure right now because there’s always going to be a new person who hasn’t had this experience.”

The second district police also launched an enforcement campaign to combat the thefts, which comes down to ticketing drivers who leave their cars unattended on the street. This means a driver’s own negligence could land them a parking ticket and a stolen car. 

“I hate the idea of that because it’s like blaming the victim,” said Merzig. “But they’re doing something wrong and that’s a major contributing factor to the problem.”

In March, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser received serious backlash after tweeting about auto theft prevention in the wake of an Uber Eats driver being killed during an attempted carjacking by two teenage girls. The mayor’s poorly timed response aimed to pressure drivers into being more cautious with their vehicles. But bringing auto theft awareness to drivers is a significant component of the city’s solution plan. 

Metropolitan Police wait behind a parked vehicle on M Street NW. (Mike Pesoli/The Wash)

And yet, the streets of Georgetown are the busiest they’ve been in quite some time. The number of visitors to the area are almost up to pre-pandemic numbers. People are back on the go. 

Georgetown resident Colleen Girourard said she leaves her car running all the time.

“When we lived here 35 years ago, our car was stolen twice. And I’ve lived here now for 15 years and it’s never been stolen,” Girourard said, knocking on the backdoor of her Jeep for good luck.

“We just don’t leave stuff in our car anymore. If you don’t leave stuff in the car, then they don’t try to get into your car,” she said.

As it turns out, The Metropolitan Police Department isn’t alone in combating auto theft in Georgetown. The Citizens Association of Georgetown is also taking matters into its own hands. They’ve posted warning signs along streets where auto thefts have recently occurred in the area. The signs remind drivers to take their keys and lock their doors; otherwise, they are looking at a parking ticket and a long walk home.

 

Mike Pesoli

Mike Pesoli

Mike Pesoli is a graduate journalism student at American University. He is a broadcast journalist and digital storyteller. Mike is passionate about local news and community reporting. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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