Please Look Out for Suspicious Persons Looking in Cars

A reader writes:

I was wondering if you could do a posting on car break-ins in our area and ask people to watch out for suspicious persons looking in cars? I live around the corner of 13th and Otis area and have definitely noticed an increase.

This past weekend, a friend of mine parked near my house and within 15 minutes, someone smashed in his window and stole his briefcase holding his laptop out of his car (see photos attached). It’s so shocking that this happened — it was broad daylight at 3 PM on a Sunday, right near the busy corner of 13th and Otis! When we called the police, she said that car theft was actually “down” in the area, but I’m not convinced: in July, my roommates car also got broken into and several pieces of recording equipment stolen. Me and my neighbors’ cars also got broken into/ransacked in August. I talked to the woman who owns the market at 13th and Otis and she echoed my same sentiment — she said the man who delivers her newspapers’ car was broken into across from the store and several Apple products stolen. She said he was only in the store for 15 minutes!

It’s obvious that someone is trolling the streets looking in people’s cars for things to steal. It’d be great if you could warn people in the area to (1) not leave valuables in their car and (2) to keep an eye out for shady people looking in cars!

Ed. Note: Also a good reminder to, in addition to not leaving anything of value in a parked car, also never leave any bags visible in your car even if they have nothing of value.

53 Comment

  • I am such an idiot. I saw a sketchy guy walking by cars and looking into each one of them on Saturday, the 13th, between 16th and 18th and north of V and below Euclid. I followed him a bit; it was daylight, and I felt brave with my little yorky that I was walking. I did not think to call the cops because he was not actually doing anything illegal. I guess I should’ve? Anyway, if you see this guy again, he walks/sometimes bikes a pretty distinctive looking gold bike (really old). It was a little odd because he did not seem to care that it was broad daylight with lots of people around and that I was obviously following him (and he also did a round right in front of the Harris Teeter).

    • I’m not sure what more you could have done. What do people think is the best way to handle this? I too have tended to think that calling the police won’t necessarily be effective–as you said, ambling around looking into cars is sketchy behavior, to be sure, but it’s not a crime. I imagine even if the police came, they could do little else but tell the individual to move along…right? Will it help to call the police anyway, or should we do things like post observations to MPD listservs or document them and send them to the police? I’m thinking that will at least help by providing some descriptions of suspicious individuals and making the case that there should be more police action in the area.

      • “I imagine even if the police came, they could do little else but tell the individual to move along…right?”

        Well…yes, that’s the point. The police don’t just exist to arrest people; in fact it’s preferable they don’t. You’d rather “get that punk this instant” or foster an environment where people don’t think casing cars for smashing is a viable hobby?

        • I didn’t say a thing in favor of a “get that punk this instant” response, nor of encouraging an environment where “casing cars for smashing is a viable hobby.” I simply wondered what the most effective citizen response might be, given the realities of limited police resources and varying police response times. Numerous commenters on many other threads have complained about slow or unsatisfying police response to a variety of calls that involved more serious or clearly-criminal actions (burglaries, flashings, etc.), so I think it’s viable to ask a) whether the police would respond, and respond in time to observe the would-be perpetrator; and b) how they can/would likely handle the situation and the extent to which that would make a difference. Doesn’t mean I necessarily think calling the police every time someone appears to be casing cars is the wrong thing to do…I was just curious whether there are more effective alternatives to bring instances of this suspicious behavior to MPD’s attention.

      • I wrote a little while ago about a storage warehouse that allows people to live in it by Georgia and Kansas ave. This is a major outlet for crime in the community, and the only way outside of remaining low-rent housing that allows petty criminals refuge in this area. I’ve been hearing sirens all around the are for weeks now.

      • Yes, you should call the police. They will at the least stop them and talk to them. Maybe they will have an outstanding warrant, and they’ll get arrested. maybe they won’t, but the police will become aware of a thief working in their area. Maybe they’ll find a pretext to search them and will find stolen goods on them.

        All of that aside, I think the important thing is that criminals should not feel comfortable. They should not feel like they can case cars with impunity. So call the damned police. If they are too busy to show up, then there’s nothing lost.

      • If you see suspicious people “casing” cars – Call the Police!
        Not hard. Not a difficult decision.
        I’ve called them twice precisely b/c 2 guys were walking down my street (one on the sidewalk and one in the street) casing the cars.
        Call the police – let them prioritize.

    • Eh, I’m not sure what a call to the cops would have done in the circumstance. Unless you catch him in the act, I don’t know why the police would pick him up. Plus, he’d be gone long before they got there. As you said, he didn’t do anything illegal while you were watching – it’s purely circumstancial evidence that other cars had break-ins.

      I think, as PoP noted, the key is leaving nothing visible in the car. That’s the single most important things folks can do to prevent this crime. I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t matter where you parked or how long, never leave a bag or anything that looks like it could be valuable showing. Tuck it under a seat, put it in the trunk, bring it with you.

    • This happened when I lived in Tenleytown. I ended up calling the non-emergency police phone number, and they said they’d send out a squad car to check on it. I felt a little silly, but there had been a car break-in on my street a few weeks before. The woman assured me it was okay that I called and that they make rounds like this pretty frequently.

      • I know you’re talking about a few years ago, but it’s worth reminding people:

        Call 911 when you want a police response, even if it’s not an emergency.

        Call 311 when you don’t want the police to come out (for example, if you have a question about requesting street parking permits from MPD) or if you have other reports to make about city services (a tree that needs pruning, a pothole, etc.).

  • Sorry to hear it. Good opportunity to help defuse what are apparently still common myths: a busy street at mid-day on a weekend for only 15 minutes is still PLENTY of opportunity for your window to be smashed if anything remotely potentially valuable might be in there. Bystanders will (understandably) not put their personal safety at risk to protect a stranger’s property, and the thief can be around the corner in no time, before cops ever appear. The only downside to them is the trouble of having to run a few blocks, so when people keep leaving hundreds to thousands of dollars of electronics in their car, it’s no wonder they keep smashing windows and rooting around.

    The same thing happened to me when I was new to the city 2 years ago. Forgot an empty backpack on the floor in back of my car, parked it at 13th and Lamont NW for 15 minutes around noon on a Sunday: returned to find window smashed in, backpack and the handful of math class notes in it were strewn all down sidewalk of Lamont. As editor added: even though nothing of value was taken from me, my window was around $368 to replace, all under my deductible so I paid out of pocket.

  • “Ed. Note: Also a good reminder to, in addition to not leaving anything of value in a parked car, also never leave any bags visible in your car even if they have nothing of value.”


    I had a friend from my hometown staying overnight at my house recently, and I went out with him to his car and had him remove EVERYTHING visible. Sure, that plastic bag in the footwell might contain only apples and yogurt… but a potential thief looking in through the window doesn’t know that.

    • Had my parents visiting and took my Dad’s golf clubs up to my apartment and had him put away the few pieces of change in the cupholder. Reality.

      • Yeah. I had my friend take some loose coins out of the cupholder, detach a power cord that was connected to the lighter and put it in the glove compartment, etc., etc.

    • I agree with the Ed. Note 100%. Even a towel or a CD is something, so take it all out.

      Another thing I do now is lock my trunk. Older cars don’t have the capability to do so, but my friend’s car was broken into, and then the burglar popped the trunk, only to find plenty of stuff worthy of stealing.

  • The kids from Cardozo HS also do this. We caught a group of them, holding bricks in their hands, looking into car windows in one of the nearby alleys. My sister yelled at them and they quickly scattered.

    So yeah, it’s definitely an issue in the area. Never leave anything in the car, even if it’s an empty bag. People will smash and grab for anything that could potentially contain valuables.

  • Couple weeks ago I was walking down 13th to U St metro for work around 10:00am. Saw two teens walking “their” bikes on the Florida Ave sidewalk between 13th and 11th (sidewalk bordering the Cardoza football field). Looking into each and every car, I followed them on the opposite side of the street until they hit 11th, then they walked into Garfiled terrace. No smash and grabs….smarter people park their cars there than 13th and Otis I guess.

  • ThunderCheese

    Same thing happened to a friend at noon on Sunday at 11th and Otis, last year. Stupid teenage punks. Never leave anything visible in your car.

  • “right near the busy corner of 13th and Otis! ”

    I lived on this corner a few years back and this description seems a little misleading…

    This photo is taken on a 1-way street headed toward the busy intersection and with nearby alley access; hardly visible from 13th st. Like 9th st behind the Petworth metro, this is a spot with lots of exit points and only 1 entry point, allowing for easy look-outs and lots of escape routes.

    Maybe next time you can report it to that cop car which is always parked illegally on 10th and Otis by the world’s most pointless stop sign.

    • Yep, not to mention that most of the alley north of Otis isn’t visible from the street, providing plenty of room to get out of sight, go through a bag, and ditch whatever isn’t valuable. We’ve found a number of bags left over the years, minus wallets/phones/computers and have occasionally busted kids in the act of going through a bag. Unfortunately, they’ve been long gone by the time MPD shows up and we haven’t been able to ID them despite being pretty sure they live nearby…

  • When I lived in Adams Morgan (last year), I definitely noticed that the blocks of Kalorama by Harris Teeter (west of 16th) seemed to have a pretty high rate of car break-ins. I would say I’ve personally seen at least seven or eight smashed windows in that time period. Since that’s metered, it’s possible that the victims are people from out of the area parking for the night who may not be aware.

    • Does it make a difference if it’s a local car versus a car with out-of-state license plates? The point is that it’s a smash-and-grab and that’s bad, no matter what plates the vehicle is wearing.

      I’m so sorry that this happened to your friend. It’s frustrating and it’s not without expense and time and hassle to deal with. It is wise and helpful advice/reminder to take everything out of the car when leaving. I don’t think particular blocks or areas of DC are especially prone. I’ve seen this all over the city.

      • I guess it makes a difference if people are not familiar with this being a legitimate concern and don’t hide their valuables/take them out of their cars.

        • Oh yeah that makes sense. I guess that smash-and-grabs are part of any city living (even cities you might never really think of) and I’m sure many locals on occasion have forgotten and left something in the car or were in a rush and left things so my thinking was these incidents are bad, no matter where the car is from.

  • I live on that corner as well, and there were 3 of the same break-ins back in August, I think, all within a week and a half of each other. All were on 13th, and all the windows smashed were on the sidewalk-side of the car. Definitely don’t keep anything in sight in parked cars.

  • Every weekend night, pretty much every car parked on M NE between N. Capitol and First NE will have its windows crushed. Seems to have absolutely nothing to do with what’s visible. All of the cars have their glove compartments and center consoles torn open as well.

  • This stuff happens in every corner of the city. A friend of mine lives in rich, white Woodley Park, and there is a theft from vehicle in that area about once a week.

  • This weekend, I saw a black car with a rear window smashed in on 17th St. between P St. and Mass Ave. There was broken glass all over the ground, so it must have been broken into there, on a busy street, in broad daylight. I’d never seen that happen in that neighborhood before.

  • When I lived in Mt P forever ago there were always guys scooting around in those Medicare-funded electric scooters/chairs looking into all the car windows from the street side. Not only could they attach tons of handy bags to these seats, but when seated they were at the perfect height to look in- plus they could conveniently get away at nearly 15 mph and look like an innocent handicapped person (saw most of them walk fine into the liquor store on Irving & Mt P.). Pretty sure my annual car burglaries had something to do with these guys- either as lookouts or perpetrators.

  • gotryit

    Caught that on video one time… they’re pretty quick, in and out.

  • I love it when people who just got here from Iowa post helpful advice on PoP. People in DC will smash your window to steal a cassette tape left on the seat, I kid you not.

    • You are a jerk.

    • This kind of advice doesn’t just have to come from or be of benefit to people from [insert stereotype-provoking, non-East Coast state here]. Plenty of otherwise savvy people (yep, including DC-ers) kinda know what they should or shouldn’t do, but maybe get careless a few times, are in a rush, tell themselves something’s not TOO likely to happen, etc. Sometimes it’s just helpful to hear about incidents like this to give ourselves an “oh right, this COULD actually happen to me, I’d better get my guard back up” wake-up call.

      • I’ve posted on here many times admonishing people for doing things that make them vulnerable – talking on the phone while walking on the street, etc. Yet last weekend I stupidly walked alone after dark near U street and got jumped, pistol whipped, and left very close to losing eyesight in my right eye. So yeah, we all need to be vigilant. Or move. Which is what I’m thinking at this point.

  • If you don’t leave anything in your car, you have nothing to worry about. Problem solved.

  • brookland_rez

    I don’t know why people keep things of value sitting out in plain sight in their cars. Especially in a densely populated area with a lot of pedestrian traffic like Columbia Heights.

  • NEVER, EVER, leave ANYTHING visible in your car EVER! Not even for 1 minute.

  • We go one step further and leave the glove compartment and console open to show that there is nothing valuable in the car (like a GPS). I’ve seen cars in the neighborhood that have signs stuck up in their windows that say there is nothing valuable in the car so please don’t break in. Not sure if they actually work, but worth a try.

    • I remember reading once about a guy in New York who used a sign saying something to the effect of “no valuables in car”…someone smashed the window, rooted around, and then wrote “just double-checking!” on the other side of the sign and put it back on the dash. Most of my car-owning friends in New York, in addition to not leaving anything whatsoever in the car, just left the doors unlocked all the time (granted, they mostly had older cars that weren’t desirable targets for auto theft). Doesn’t protect against those who are just doing it for the sake of vandalism, but a couple of friends did have people open the doors and rummage around in their glove boxes…slightly disconcerting but they were at least happy no one had to smash the windows.

      • I’m sure the homeless people thanked your friends for the evening’s use of the make-shift shelter and toilet.


        • Oh heavens!

        • Yikes, no need to be snarky about bringing the “homeless” issue to people’s attention. As a matter of fact, most of my car-owning friends in New York have been leaving their car doors unlocked for 10+ years, and never once has anything like that happened to them. Maybe they’re all just extremely lucky. But I’ll take your word for it that it’s a huge risk in DC, which is good to know.

        • brookland_rez

          When I lived on Parker St, transvestite prostitutes broke into someones car and did their deeds in it. I’m pretty sure they would love to find an unlocked car.

  • Just this week there have been at least two car break-ins on Holmead Place very close to where the OP is. The first was Monday where a window was smashed at Holmead at Meridian Place. And last night a friend’s car was rummaged through on Holmead at Parkwood Place. I don’t know specifics about the first case, but in the second, luckily, nothing of value was taken. The cops are involved.

    Would not be surprised if it’s the same guy in all these cases. Either way, PoP’s note still applies: NEVER leave anything (or the APPEARANCE of anything) valuable in your car!

  • +1000000 to not leaving ANYTHING in your car. it does not matter whether it is valuable. it only has to *look* like it *might* have *some* value and that’s enough. my car was broken into around there for nothing valuable- just an old portable sewing machine that didn’t work. the window cost way more to fix. my fiance’s car was also broken into, and my brother’s car on a visit. you simply cannot leave ANYTHING AT ALL in your vehicle.

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