Carjackings are up, in the latest bleak development of 2020

There are many reasons why, not the least of which is Covid

Surveillance camera footage of the firefight between three carjackers and retired Chicago fire Lt. Dwain Williams earlier this month.

To the long list of ways in which 2020 was a terrible year, we can add another: In U.S. cities, violent carjackings are up. Way up.

In Minneapolis, the Star-Tribune newspaper reports that carjackings were up 537% in November; there were 125 instances of the crime in October-November.

In Chicago, carjackings have more than doubled, a trend punctuated by the December death of retired Chicago fire Lt. Dwain Williams, shot by three armed carjackers after pulling his own handgun and engaging them in a shootout. Heading into the Thanksgiving weekend, Chicago police statistics showed there had been more than 1,150 carjackings to date in 2020, compared to 507 in all of 2019. Depending on how the final month adds up, the annual increase could be closer to triple.

New Orleans, Oakland, Milwaukee, Louisville, Nashville and Kansas City all report increases in carjackings, and a look back at the past 60 days of Associated Press coverage turns up cases in Philadelphia, St. Louis and even Wichita. In Wentzville, Mo., a motorist foiled a carjacking by pulling his own weapon.

All of this is accompanied by a rise in car thefts overall, and increased crime in general. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) reports, "Preliminary data from 223 police agencies across the United States reveal steep increases this year in homicides and aggravated assaults."

Police say many factors have contributed to the surge. For one thing, thanks to the coronavirus we're all wearing masks now, so masked men walking up to your car aren't as unusual and alarming as they used to be. That makes it all the easier for them to yank the driver out, hop in and drive off without ever showing their faces, foiling any surveillance cameras in the area and leaving police without a good description of the suspects.

Another effect of the coronavirus: Many juveniles are not in school. Minneapolis Police Commander Charlie Adams told ABC News that "80% of our carjackings and robberies are being done by juveniles, ages from 9 up to 17." Kids, he says, are committing these crimes and then "basically bragging" on social media.

And, Adams says, the risk of Covid transmission means that a lot of juvenile detention centers have released their detainees. "Some of these have been involved in 10 or more robberies. They're not being held."

Minneapolis' sharp rise is a bit of a special case in all this. The months of turmoil following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer have seen a rise in violent crimes, particularly shootings. The reasons are many: Police retirements are up, the ranks are thin and demoralized, and there's a general paralysis as city leaders wrangle over how to enact police reforms.

Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, told ABC there is "real uncertainty around what police are expected or allowed to do."

One other factor in why crime is on the rise, according to the PERF report: Police don't want to catch Covid any more than the rest of us do, and are being more hands-off in their duties. 

It's important to emphasize that while the increases are alarming, in terms of raw numbers carjackings are still relatively rare, and are more likely to happen in big cities. But it might not hurt to be more vigilant. The perpetrators typically approach someone who is near or in their car and is preoccupied — say, by their cellphone. Older drivers and women are particular targets. A common ruse is for carjackers to approach you while asking directions.

It's good advice any time, but now more than ever: Keep your head on a swivel.

"We do know that oftentimes the carjackers are targeting people that that may be distracted," Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder told ABC. "You have the mother who's taking her child out of a carseat. You have people that are unloading groceries, that sort of thing, where people's hands are tied up. Keep your eyes open. Drive by where you are going to go. Take a look, see what's happening. See if there's anyone lurking."

Elder concludes that people bristle when told to just give up their car rather than fight. "But know what your limitations are, what your strengths are. Understand the value of what's happening, and if somebody's got a gun, is your life worth your car?"

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