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News / Nation & World

The District of Columbia is combating car thefts and carjackings with dashcams and AirTags

By ASHRAF KHALIL, Associated Press
Published: November 20, 2023, 6:15pm
3 Photos
Metropolitan Police Department officer Muhammad Lewis explains to Nils Bruzelius how to use a Tile tracker during an event where police officers distributed mobile tracking devices for cars to drivers in an attempt to curb a rise in crime in Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.
Metropolitan Police Department officer Muhammad Lewis explains to Nils Bruzelius how to use a Tile tracker during an event where police officers distributed mobile tracking devices for cars to drivers in an attempt to curb a rise in crime in Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jeff Pena contacted his father as soon as he heard that police were passing out auto tracking devices to try to stem a sharp increase in carjackings, auto thefts and other crimes in the nation’s capital.

“It’s just getting crazy out there,” said Pena, whose father, Raul Pena, drives for the rideshare app Lyft. “Especially now because Christmas is coming and nobody has any money.”

That’s why the pair recently sat in a line of cars winding around the block near Nationals Park, the city’s pro baseball stadium, waiting their turn for a police officer to install the tracker — literally just an Apple AirTag — and show them how to use it.

The initiative is part of a multipronged anti-crime offensive launched by the Metropolitan Police Department and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s government. Violent crimes, particularly homicide and car theft, have risen sharply, and the deputy mayor for public safety, Lyndsey Appiah, flatly stated before the House Judiciary Committee last month that the city is in the midst of a crime crisis.

The elder Pena, 58, said he generally enjoyed driving and meeting new people but had become much more cautious in recent months and stopped driving late at night.

“I do get nervous sometimes,” he said. “It’s worse now because it gets dark so early in the winter. Right now I feel very unsafe.”

One week later, Faenita Dilworth told a similar story. The mother of three and grandmother of two was sitting in one of about a dozen vehicles waiting in the parking lot of the old RFK Stadium, the former home of Washington’s NFL team, for a city-sponsored handout of dashboard cameras.

“They told me to get a camera and make sure somebody installs it for me,” she laughed. “If a person knows they’re being recorded, they’re less likely to do anything silly.”

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The cameras were free for any District of Columbia resident who drives for a rideshare company like Uber, Lyft or Alto — or for a food delivery service like DoorDash. The AirTag trackers were available to any resident who lives in one of several designated auto theft hot zones.

As of Nov. 14, homicides are up 34% compared with this time last year. Car theft is up 98%, and carjackings have more than doubled — up 104%. Recent carjacking victims include a Texas congressman and a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates.

“It is not lost on us that we need to do more to increase public safety,” said Salah Czapary, head of the city’s Department of Nightlife and Culture. His department, which covers issues relating to restaurants and food delivery, partnered with the Department of For-Hire Vehicles for the dashboard camera distributions. The initiative is funded by a $500,000 donation from DoorDash — enough to pay for about 2,500 camera kits.

“We do feel it will help deter crime. That camera footage can help police to close a case and help prosecutors to successfully prosecute that case,” Czapary.

Some like Jessica Gray, a high school administrator who was waiting in line for an AirTag, said they were happy for the initiative, although she questioned exactly how the whole process would work.

“When you think about the response time, by the time the police respond and start tracking down the car, will there be anything left of it by the time they find it?” she said.

Police Sgt. Anthony Walsh didn’t promise that police would immediately be able to recover a stolen car intact. But he said the tracker information would help police trace the route of the car thieves and possibly pull security camera footage from along that route to aid in an eventual arrest and court case.

“This is all about helping our investigators build a case that holds up in court and hopefully takes car thieves off the streets. That’s the idea,” he said.

Walsh also found himself fielding multiple questions about whether the AirTag would allow the government to track drivers’ movements. He pointed out that the residents themselves would be doing the tracking on their phones and would turn over that information to the police if they wanted to aid the investigation.

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