The District of Columbia is fighting theft and car theft with dash cams and AirTags

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

“It just gets crazy out there,” said Pena, whose father, Raul Pena, drives for the ride-sharing app Lyft. “Especially now because Christmas is coming and nobody has money.

That’s why the pair recently sat in a line of cars winding around the block near Nationals Park, the city’s professional 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 multi-pronged offensive against crime launched by the Metropolitan Police Department and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s government. Violent crime, especially homicides and carjackings, has skyrocketed, and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Lindsey Appiah told the House Judiciary Committee last month emphatically that the city is in the midst of a crime crisis.

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

“Sometimes I get nervous,” he said. “It’s worse now because it gets dark so early in the winter. I feel very insecure right now.”

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 old RFK Stadium, the former home of Washington’s NFL team, for a city-sponsored dash cam giveaway.

“They told me to get a camera and make sure someone installed it for me,” she laughed. “If a person knows they’re being recorded, they’re less likely to do something stupid.”

The cameras were free to any D.C. resident who drives for a ride-sharing company like Uber, Lyft or Alto — or a food delivery service like DoorDash. AirTag trackers were available to any resident who lived in one of several designated auto theft hotspots.

As of Nov. 14, homicides were up 34 percent compared to this time last year. Car thefts increased by 98% and car thefts more than doubled to 104%. Recent carjacking victims include a Texas congressman and a United Arab Emirates diplomat.

“We haven’t forgotten that we need to do more to increase public safety,” said Salah Chapari, head of the city’s nightlife and culture department. Its department, which covers issues related to restaurants and food delivery, has partnered with the rental vehicle department to roll out dashboard cameras. The initiative is funded by a $500,000 donation from DoorDash — enough to pay for about 2,500 sets of cameras.

“We think this will help deter crime.” This dashcam footage can help police close a case and help prosecutors successfully prosecute him,” Chapari.

Some, like Jessica Gray, a high school administrator who waited in line for an AirTag, said they were happy about the initiative, even though she had doubts about exactly how the whole process would work.

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

Police Sergeant Anthony Walsh did not promise that the police would immediately be able to return the stolen car intact. But he said the information from the tracker would help police track the car thieves’ route and possibly download security camera footage of that route to help with a possible arrest and prosecution.

“This is all to help 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 numerous questions about whether AirTag would allow the government to track drivers’ movements. He indicated that the residents themselves would do the tracking of their phones and pass that information on to the police if they wanted to help the investigation.

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