DC combating car thefts and carjackings with dashcams and AirTags

WASHINGTON — Jeff Pena contacted his father as soon as he heard police were handing out automated tracking devices in an effort to combat 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 no one has any money.”

That’s why the pair recently sat in a line of cars driving around the block near Nationals Park, the city’s professional baseball stadium, and waited their turn for a police officer to install the tracker (literally just an Apple AirTag) and showed them how to use it. .

The elder Pena, 58, said he generally enjoyed driving and meeting new people, but had become much more cautious in recent months and no longer drove late at night.

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

A week later, Faenita Dilworth told a similar story. The mother of three and grandmother of two sat 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 distribution of dashboard cameras.

“They told me to buy a camera and have someone install it for me,” she laughed. “If someone knows they are being recorded, they are less likely to do something stupid.”

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

The parallel initiatives are just part of a multi-pronged anti-crime offensive launched by the Metropolitan Police Department and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration. Violent crimes, especially murder and auto theft, have spiked, and the city’s 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.

As of November 14, homicides are up 34% compared to this time last year. Car theft has increased by 98% and the number of car thefts has more than doubled: an increase of 104%. Recent carjacking victims include a 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 Nightlife and Culture Department. His department, which deals with restaurant and food delivery issues, partnered with the Department of For-Hire Vehicles to distribute dashboard cameras. The initiative is funded by a $500,000 donation from DoorDash – enough to pay for about 2,500 camera kits.

“We are confident this will help deter crime. That camera footage can help police close a case and help prosecutors successfully prosecute that case,” Czapary said.

Some, like Jessica Gray, a school principal who waited in line for an AirTag, said they were pleased with the initiative, although she wondered how exactly the whole process would work.

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

Police Sgt. Anthony Walsh did not promise that police would immediately be able to find a stolen car intact. But he said the tracker information would help police trace the car thieves’ route and possibly collect security camera footage along that route to aid in an eventual arrest and trial.

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

Walsh also found himself fielding several questions about whether the AirTag would allow the government to track drivers’ movements. He pointed out that residents would do the tracking themselves on their phones and pass that information on to police if they wanted to help the investigation.