Ward 5 residents call attention to thefts during a September ANC Meeting

Police tell Ward 5 residents to conceal valuables from “bad guys” as thefts-from-autos surge

Francine Worsoff, Staff Writer

Residents of the District’s Ward 5 neighborhoods, including Brookland and Langdon, said during a Sep. 30, 2022, meeting of the Ward 5B Advisory Neighborhood Committee, ANC, that they had been affected by a surge in auto thefts and the police department’s response to them. 

Residents at the meeting called law enforcement’s attention to these non-violent, but high-frequency, crimes in the neighborhood inadequate and dismissive after they were told that the solution was to conceal valuables or avoid leaving them in vehicles altogether.

“Most theft from autos are crimes of opportunity,” said Ward 5 Patrol Services Sergeant David Eley. “The bad guys look for vehicles that are unlocked and take advantage.”

That attitude does not sit well with many community leaders and residents like Gayle Garley who chairs the Ward 5B committee.

 “That’s the only crime that’s rising,” Carley said. “They’re trying to educate people to not leave valuables in their car to not entice people to break in.” 

But residents, Carley said, want issues solved. Carley said she sees petty crimes as gateways to more severe crimes and setting the stage for many safety issues in their community.

Around 30% of D.C. residents say they do not feel safe in their neighborhoods, according to a 2022 Washington Post poll, an increase from 22% in November 2019.  

According to city-wide data from the Metropolitan Police Department, MPD, nearly 58,194 city-wide total crimes took place in the past year to date, and about 49,905 were non-violent property crimes, and nearly 8300 were violent crimes.

In 2023, there have been about 10,571 city-wide total crimes as of May 3. About 9,100 were non-violent property crimes and roughly 1,400 were violent crimes.

Metropolitan Police Department’s Fifth District Crime Map in the last year to date, “DC Crime Cards.” Dc.gov, 2023 (Francine Worsoff)

Crime in Ward 5 mirrors the dramatic uptick in the rest of the city. In the ward there were 834 motor vehicle thefts and almost 1,500 total property crimes, in 2022the last year to date. Given these numbers, Ward 5 residents, like Joann Armstead, expected attention from police but, instead, residents said they felt dismissed at the ANC meeting. 

Armstead, who lives in Brookland, said she has been a frequent victim of motor theft. 

The most recent incident cost her insurance over $5,000. Armstead said she has been frustrated with the inadequate police response and that violent crimes are prioritized over property crimes like auto thefts, leaving victims feeling isolated. 

“They seem to be doing nothing about it. It’s like they put the blame on us,” Armstead said. “Four of my tires were stolen off my parked vehicle in July and my car was broken into. I contacted the fifth district sergeant, and they didn’t even respond. I can’t sleep at night. I fear that this will happen again.”

ANC Commissioner Ra Amin, who serves on the executive board and is a resident of Brookland, said in a Zoom interview that he understands the police calculation. However, his opinion is not popular with his neighbors.

“I think MPD’s response is adequate,” Amin said. “Did someone break into your car or was your car left unlocked with your valuables sitting around? There are predators that are watching you get out of your car. I have empathy for the victims of theft in our district. But if someone gets shot, that takes precedence over property damage.”  

Amin said he walks this community every single day and frequently sees cars that have been broken into on Hamlin, Jackson and Laurence Streets. 

“People love Brookland because it’s quiet,” Amin said. “Nobody’s on the street after 9 p.m., there’s big trees everywhere and it becomes a place of property theft opportunity.”  

This graph highlights the large proportion of non-violent crimes in D.C. over the past two years.
(Francine Worsoff)

Dr. Richard Bennet, a professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University, said it makes sense that police patrol areas in communities where crime is most impactful and that they focus on the most severe offenses.

“We simply don’t have the manpower to keep police officers on the street to protect all these cars from break-ins,” Bennet said. “The police department isn’t up in capacity, it’s incredibly expensive to do investigations. Are we going to take our officers off serious crime scenes to see who broke into your car?”

Armstead said that rising crime puts more the safety of residents and the reputation of the city at stake. Crime, Armstead added, is causing residents to flee, fueling more crime, and demonstrating a lack of adequate action from city officials.

MPD Chief of Police Robert J. Contee III said that all crimes in the city concern him, especially as numbers of both violent and petty crimes have risen dramatically in the last year, according to MPD data

“I am working everyday with my team to make this the safest large city in the country,” Contee said in a phone interview. 

Contee and Mayor Muriel Bowser launched a new city-wide initiative called the Homicide Reduction Partnership, a collaborative effort with MPD to reduce violent crime in the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, according to a Feb. 18, 2022, press release from the mayor’s office. MPD officials will focus resources and intelligence-led policing with local and federal law enforcement criminal justice partners. D.C. government agencies and community partners to tackle violent crime. MPD also launched a task force and assigned a committed team of detectives to fight auto thefts and carjackings, according to the MPD website.

 Contee said he needs community participation to make these programs work. 

“While we are making progress this year in reducing crime, partnerships with our business community and every resident are really important to ensure that we achieve goals related to safety,” Contee said.