DC Police Crack Down on Cell Phone Robberies

An MPD spokesperson says incidents are down compared with last year.

By: Harry Jaffe

Police and prosecutors in DC are starting to make progress in stopping the rash of cell phone robberies that plagued the city last year, according to cases and police records.

Last February DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters that robbers stealing cell phones and other electronic devices had “clobbered” her department.

Robberies were up nearly 40 percent citywide in February 2012, compared with the previous year, according to the MPD. And the department says cell phones accounted for nearly 40 percent of all robberies in 2012.

“I hear 15 stories or so every morning in my crime briefings,” Lanier said. “We are being clobbered with these robberies, and they’re looking for the same thing. They say, ‘Give me your purse. Now where is your phone?’”

Recently DC cops and prosecutors say they have begun to bust robbery rings, arrest random muggers, and get serious jail time for perpetrators guilty of ripping off cell phones.

Take Vincent Shingler. Last summer the 24-year-old DC resident ran up behind a Howard University graduate student who had just arrived in the city from Alaska. She was listening to a book on tape. Shingler grabbed her purse and cell phone on Quincy Street and ran.

She screamed. Bystanders came to her aid. Shingler ran off with the stolen goods.

Two weeks later the victim saw Shingler enter a local store near Howard campus. She called the cops, who arrived quickly and arrested Shingler. He pleaded guilty to robbery in December; on Thursday a judge sentenced him to two years and eight months in prison.

A spokesperson for US Attorney Ronald Machen tells The Washingtonian his office has handled “quite a few cases” of cell phones being taken.

Thieves have been swiping cell phones in cities across the country. They are easy to grab, simple to sell, valuable in international trade. Lanier joined other big city chiefs last year to suggest wireless companies use existing technology to shut down phones remotely.

Now DC police are offering rewards up to $10,000 for information leading to a conviction. Metro police are posing as sleeping commuters with exposed cell phones in a ruse to nab robbers.

“We got offenders off the street, shut down illegal fencing operations, and worked with the cell phone industry to reform their policies to stop allowing reactivation of stolen phones,” MPD spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump says.

By the end of 2012, cops had slowed the rise of robberies, she adds, and so far this year robberies are down compared with last year.

Word that Vincent Shingler got 32 months in the slammer for grabbing a cell phone might get around and take the joy out of ripping off phones. But it still helps to employ street smarts and not walk around after midnight with your cell phone smashed to your ear.