ST. PETERSBURG — When a man walked inside the Citgo station at the corner of 34th Street and 22nd Avenue South Wednesday afternoon, he left his car running but kept an eye on it from inside.
Four teens hanging out in the parking lot were watching, too. Once the man walked away, a 15-year-old jumped into the 2007 Honda Accord and drove away.
“People get complacent. They’ve probably done it 100 times,” St. Petersburg police Detective Tim Brown said Thursday, standing outside the business, which police have identified as one of the prime targets in a recent spate of auto thefts from gas stations.
Vehicle thefts are up significantly in St. Petersburg this year. Through July, thefts of all types of vehicles — including cars, trucks, boats and motorcycles — were up 30 percent compared to last year, St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman Mike Puetz said.
Police report that 83 percent of the 551 cars and trucks reported stolen through early August involved keys left in the ignition or inside the vehicles.
In May, Chief Chuck Harmon formed the Deterrence, Response, Outreach and Prevention unit, comprised of eight detectives. The DROP unit works with other police units to identify crime trends and patterns and develop deterrent strategies.
Since it started, the DROP unit has focused on copper theft from vacant houses, retail and auto thefts. Part of its efforts involve educating the public — letting people know about emerging crime patterns in their neighborhoods, for example, or stressing ways people can avoid becoming victims, said Sgt. Brian Taylor, who heads the unit.
Thursday, Taylor and a handful of officers stood outside the Citgo on 22nd Avenue South, talking to reporters about the growing number of cars stolen because people leave them running or the keys inside.
Technology has made modern cars tougher to steal, but thieves have learned to wait around gas stations, convenience stores, day care centers and automated teller machines.
“It takes literally two seconds, and they’re waiting for that perfect opportunity,” Taylor said.
Mostly, the thieves are kids, in need of a car or seeking a joy ride, Brown said.
In July, vehicle thefts were up 93 percent compared to last year, Puetz said. They typically increase during the summer because kids are out of school.
Many of the thefts are happening along the city’s busy 34th Street corridor, which has a lot of gas stations and stores, Brown said.
In many cases, the thieves simply abandon the vehicles they steal, Brown said. Last year, police recovered 95 percent of the vehicles stolen in the city, he said. That’s in large part due to St. Petersburg’s lack of professional car thieves or chop shops, he said.
St. Petersburg’s rise in auto thefts from gas stations comes amid national reports of a growing number of “sliding” thefts, where thieves snatch purses and valuables from unlocked vehicles while drivers are pumping gas or inside.