Before a room of supporters at the Little Italy Lodge this month, former Mayor Sheila Dixon fielded a question about a particularly shocking example of car theft. A 16-year-old who police reported was involved in the attempted carjacking of a detective in August was found fatally shot just months later, after a stolen vehicle he was in crashed on Orleans Street.

With so many people concerned for their safety, what would she do to get a handle on teenage crime, robberies and car theft?

“More and more young people feel that they can do the same thing,” responded Dixon, who has often hammered a tough-on-crime message in her campaign to reclaim her former office, arguing that city and state officials need to do more to both connect kids with resources and impress consequences on kids. “They get to learn the laws the same way we do.”

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Less than a week later, Mayor Brandon Scott stood alongside his police commissioner at East Baltimore’s Pulaski impound lot, outlining his own plan for an escalated response to an epidemic of stolen cars. Though violent crime has abated in Baltimore, “there is one major statistic trending in the wrong direction,” said Scott, who announced plans to roll out police license plate readers and hand out wheel locks among a raft of measures to combat car theft.

The back-to-back events from the two premier candidates for mayor sent a clear message: Both sides see the spike in stolen vehicles, and the widespread concern it has driven, as potentially consequential factors in May’s Democratic primary election.

This story is part of a deep dive on auto thefts.

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While it’s unclear just how much the trend could move the needle in the contest between Scott and Dixon, cars have been stolen in Baltimore and across the country at an alarming rate over the last year — a trend fueled by a design choice intended to save money in the cars of two manufacturers, Kia and Hyundai, and a TikTok challenge outlining how to steal them that went viral among teenagers. By early November of this year, there were more than 9,500 reported auto theft incidents in Baltimore, more than triple the total from the same time frame in 2022.

That could be a problem for the incumbent Scott, who trailed Dixon by a two-digit margin among likely Democratic voters in a September poll by The Baltimore Banner. In Baltimore Facebook groups and neighborhood message boards, anxiety over surging car thefts has run rampant in recent months. The City Council devoted a hearing to the issue last week, while Central Baltimore Councilman Eric Costello has pressured the mayor in two separate public letters to get a handle on the spike.

As Scott is quick to emphasize, the wave of stolen cars comes even as violent crime has receded substantially in Baltimore this year. Through Nov. 7, nonfatal shootings are down 9% and homicides are down 23%. For the first time since 2015, the city is on pace to finish with fewer than 300 homicides.

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But city residents don’t feel any safer now than they did a year ago, Banner polling has found — a signal that crimes like robberies and car thefts may help form public perception as much as homicides. A whopping 87% of respondents to a Banner/Goucher College poll in September said they think crime in their own neighborhoods is the same or worse than a year before.

That may be because voters tend to view crime holistically and “episodically,” said Mileah Kromer, Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College, meaning they internalize episodes they hear about in their own neighborhoods, and don’t necessarily separate homicides from other types of crime.

“I don’t dismiss the reality of the situation,” said Kromer, noting the importance of declining gun violence under Scott’s tenure. At the same time, “it’s the perception that really matters for voters.”

Dixon, meanwhile, has been effective at harkening back to her own days as mayor in the late 2000s — when homicides dipped to the low 200s — to convince voters she’s better equipped for tackling crime, observed Kromer, who administered The Banner’s September poll. Fifty percent of poll respondents said they think Dixon would be best able to handle crime, compared to just 31% of respondents who said Scott was the man for the task.

In addition to Scott and Dixon, Bob Wallace, who drew 20% of the vote in the 2020 general election as in independent candidate, announced last month he’s running again, this time as a Democrat. With close to 30% of Democrats potentially up for grabs in the mayor’s race, Wallace’s candidacy could shake things up.

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Theresa Abel, a shipping manager at the Port of Baltimore, recalls how her family often left the doors of their Federal Hill home unlocked when she was a kid. Today, Abel said she wouldn’t allow her grandson to walk alone a few blocks to the store from her home in Morrell Park.

Abel is one of thousands of Baltimore residents in the last year who have had a car stolen. She eventually found hers, a 2019 Kia Optima, in a tow yard in Brooklyn — totaled. Like numerous residents interviewed by The Banner, Abel said she’s unsure how much local leaders can really do to address the problem, which she noted seems to fall on Kia and Hyundai’s shoulders.

But Baltimore crime feels pervasive to Abel in ways it didn’t when she was growing up — if shootings really are down, she theorized, “it’s probably because they’re more occupied with stealing cars” — and while she said she couldn’t imagine voting for Scott, Dixon has her interest.

“She may have got in trouble,” Abel said, alluding the the gift card theft scandal that precipitated Dixon’s early exit from City Hall in 2010, “but we did not have the crime like this when she was in office. So she must be doing something right.”

In an interview, Scott stressed that car thefts are plaguing cities across the country — the reason Baltimore and other cities are pursuing lawsuits against Kia and Hyundai. But while the surge is a nationwide issue, Scott said that doesn’t diminish the importance of taking steps here to mitigate the problem. Among other measures, Scott pointed to plans for the distribution of digital tracking tags and thousands of wheel locks to residents with vulnerable vehicles.

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When it comes to youth-involved crime, Scott and Dixon have struck similar chords in recent months. Scott has lately called for more stringent policies from the state Department of Juvenile Services to keep teenagers with histories of car theft and other crimes from committing the same offenses over and over again.

And the first-term mayor acknowledged that some residents, particularly in the more affluent, whiter parts of town, may be more personally concerned about car thefts and other types of property crime than they are about homicides. So he’s also pointing out ways he’s making those neighborhoods safer.

“Which is why you hear me talk about carjackings,” Scott said, pointing to the violent form of vehicle theft that is down significantly this year, even as nonviolent car thefts have rocketed up. “Because we know that happens in those areas, and why we have to beat that drum” highlighting the drop in carjackings. “All of it matters all the time, and it should matter that way for everyone.”

The national impact of the car theft trend emphasized by Scott isn’t lost on many residents. While there are always opportunities for a mayor to inspire police and communities to come together or crack down on the problem, said Rich Badmington with the Riverside Neighborhood Association, the precise steps that city leaders could take to control the surge in car thefts are less clear.

“I don’t want to sound dismissive,” Badmington said of concerns about the trend, “but I am anxious to hear solutions.”

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Still, some residents particularly concerned about property crime may be hard to win over.

Nathan Bounds, a Federal Hill resident who works as a federal risk analyst, said that for him and many of his peers, property crime has reached a breaking point, encroaching on their lives in ways that Baltimore’s long-standing issues with gun violence never had.

At this point, Bounds said he’s just hoping to get his money back on his home and move out of the city. Homicides and shootings have less impact on Bounds’s day-to-day life, he said, since they don’t frequently happen in his neighborhood.

“It’s the car thefts, the muggings that actually hits us close to home,” he said.

Even so, Dixon said in an interview that she doesn’t see many voters singling out car thefts as a decisive issue in her contest with Scott. The former mayor said she expects residents to make decisions based on broader crime trends, and in particular, the candidates’ plans for addressing youth-involved crime.

When it comes to violence in Baltimore, Dixon suggested that Scott too often points to national trends and drivers as an explanation for what’s happening in the city. Homicides may be down, the former mayor said, but the persistence of “quality of life crimes” mean that people don’t feel any safer.

At the end of the day, she said, residents will ask: “Who’s gonna make me feel safe in my community?”

Arch McKown, safety chair for the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, said that in his view, concerns about shootings are often what prevent people who live outside Baltimore from coming into town. It’s “quality of life” crimes — package theft, break-ins, stolen cars — though, that drive residents out of the city, he argued.

McKown, who sat on a public safety panel with Dixon at her town hall in the Little Italy Lodge — and who asked the former mayor about the 16-year-old found on Orleans Street — said he thinks concerns about car thefts and similar crimes are enough to shift how many of his neighbors cast their vote.

When people continually hear about dangerous incidents affecting their neighbors on the street, their patience wears thin, McKown said.

“You can be safe and not feel safe,” he added. “If you don’t feel safe then you say: We need to change this program.”

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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