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Class goal: Put car thieves out of business

With almost 80 automobiles reported stolen within the city limits already this year, police are hoping education _ and a free gift _ will help bring that number down.

Largo police will offer a two-hour course on auto theft prevention Aug. 4. Besides the education, participants will receive a free steering wheel lock, also known as the Club.

The course, which is limited to 35 participants, is being co-sponsored by the Florida Regional Community Policing Unit.

"It's an outreach program from the department into the community," said police spokesman Mac McMullen.

Auto thefts have not been an increasing problem in Largo, as thefts were down slightly in the first six months of this year compared with the same time period last year. They also were down from 1999.

Clearwater police also reported a decrease in auto thefts in the first six months of this year, from 227 to 213, said spokesman Wayne Shelor.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office did not have figures for the first six months of this year, but the numbers dipped the previous two years, sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie said.

There were 1,058 auto thefts in the county jurisdiction last year, down 12.6 percent from 1998.

Still, police officials say that's no reason to let your guard down. People whose cars are stolen typically make the mistake of leaving their doors unlocked or even leaving the keys dangling from the ignition when they go into a store.

And people who leave their car running while they quickly run into a store are making a major mistake, police said.

"More often than not, auto theft is a crime of opportunity," Shelor said. "The easiest thing in the world is for a youngster who doesn't have his own set of wheels to walk through a parking lot looking for a car with keys."

Shelor said there have been corresponding surges of auto thefts in Clearwater and in Tampa in past years, as thieves would steal a car from a mall parking lot in Tampa, then drive to Clearwater, ditch the car at a mall parking lot here, then steal another car from the lot to get back to Tampa. And vice versa.

McMullen said he hopes the auto theft prevention classes will raise awareness. The steering wheel locks will help thwart thieves who attack a car's steering column.

The devices were purchased as part of a grant the Florida Regional Community Policing Institute received from the Florida Attorney General's Office.

To learn more

A class on how to prevent auto theft will be from 9-11 a.m. Aug. 4 at the Largo Police Department, 201 Highland Ave. Participants do not have to live in Largo, but must present proof of vehicle registration to receive a free steering wheel locking device. The number of participants is limited to 35. To sign up, call Mac McMullen at 586-7475.