February 8, 2021

Police Challenged by Dramatic Increases in Carjackings by Juveniles


Key Takeaways

-- Many carjacking suspects are young. With many schools closed for in-person education, school-aged youths with free time – some as young as 12-15 – are committing a large portion of the increase in carjackings.

-- A small number of suspects are responsible for many of the carjackings. With many courts closed because of the pandemic and authorities reluctant to hold juveniles pending trial, suspects remain on the street and are committing multiple crimes.

-- These are crimes of opportunity. Offenders aren’t targeting certain cars. They are noticing potential victims, such as delivery drivers or people warming up their cars, and acting on those opportunities.

-- Some suspects are needlessly assaulting the victims. Even when victims comply with suspects’ demands, some suspects assault the victims.

-- To address these trends, police departments are putting more resources into investigations. Some agencies are also using intervention strategies with known offenders.


Minneapolis Deputy Chief of Investigations Kathy Waite

The numbers are up considerably. In 2019 we had 101 carjackings. In 2020 we were at 405. The vast majority of our carjacking suspects are juveniles. In Minnesota right now, a lot of these kids are not in school, as is the case across the nation.

Another factor is that a lot of our outreach teams, such as those that operate through social workers or schools, are touchpoints that families normally have, and those are not nearly as accessible to them now. That is probably having an impact. The economic impact on families is also a possibility.

When you look at a lot of the carjackings we’ve had, it’s the same suspects. We’ve identified several groups of kids involved in this, many of whom are younger than we would normally see, anywhere from 12 to 15 years old. Often they’re using guns as a threat to acquire the vehicles.  It’s disturbing that they’re not just pointing a gun and making the demand for the vehicle and phones or wallets; they’re also beating people up ruthlessly. People give up their phones, purses, and car keys, and then they’re beating them down. That violence in robbery cases is something we’ve been seeing over the years in Minneapolis.

At times they’re using the vehicle as a means to go around and do street robberies, using that as their getaway vehicle. In some cases they’re hanging onto these vehicles for several days, and sometimes even a week or more. In the past we saw people ditch cars right away. Now we’re seeing them steal license plates off one vehicle and put them on the stolen vehicle, which makes apprehension more difficult.

The pandemic comes into play with the offenders who have been arrested. Nobody wants to hold anybody in our jail system, especially with our juvenile offenders. We’ve really gotten away from holding kids for any length of time, and the pandemic is amplifying that.

We’ve also seen something called the Freedom Fund, which is bailing out people at a really high rate. That comes into play with some of our violent offenders as well.

The victims vary in age and demographics. The one pattern we’ve seen is that our suspects are narrowing their focus to two of our police precincts that are located on the southern end of the city. I’m not sure why they’re focused on those areas. Some of our suspects reside in northern Minneapolis, which tends to have the city’s highest crime rates, so maybe they’re not going to commit those crimes in their own backyard.


Chicago Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan

Last April, when COVID started taking hold, is when carjackings shot up, and it really never slowed down. We had a little bit of a dip in the fall when the kids went to e-learning. We ended with 1,400 for 2020, and in 2021 it’s been even worse. We’re at 224 carjackings as of February 3.

In regular years, there have always been three buckets of carjackings.

There’s a very small bucket of people who are looking for a high-end vehicle, which we don’t recover because it goes to a chop shop or gets retagged.

The second bucket is the gangs and organized criminal networks. They take the cars because they want to go do a shooting or a robbery, and they don’t want the police to track them. Our detectives have been successful with tracking the cars and using phones to connect people to those cars, then making arrests for murders.

The reason for the spike is the third bucket, which is juvenile offenders. It’s just a game for these kids. We have kids who do 14 carjackings a week. The juvenile justice system is a very difficult system to work with. The adult and juvenile courts are closed. There are no jury trials.

Our cars are mostly being dumped within 12-24 hours and recovered. They’re taking the cars, and they aren’t selling them or going to chop shops. They’re maybe going to McDonald’s, and then they’re going to carjack another car.

None of the victims can make identifications. We work closely with our state’s attorney’s office, but those cases are extremely hard to prove in court.

The carjackings are a crime of opportunity. They’re driving around. If they see someone parking or if they see someone sitting in their car texting, that’s the car they’re going to take. Our most carjacked cars are the most common  cars in America – Toyota Camrys, Honda Civics, etc.

They’re not only taking cars, but they’re also treating people extremely violently, with punching, kicking, etc. We have had a few shootings.

They’re mostly using guns, and if it isn’t guns, it’s just force. So if an Uber or Lyft driver lets them into their car, they just start choking them and pull them out of the car. But mostly they’re pointing a gun or implying they have a gun. It may be a replica gun, but most are real guns.

We added resources to our carjacking task force. We’re trying to work these cases like murders and build better cases. We have to build the best case possible, working with our state’s attorney’s office.

The other strategy is youth intervention and public engagement. We do custom notifications. We know which kids have been arrested multiple times for doing this. The police department will go to their homes with all the social service agencies. It’s not led by the police department. It’s really the social service agencies talking to the kids or their families to offer services. It’s hard, because the basketball leagues aren’t up, etc. But there are social services out there. Usually the family says, “Yes, I want my kid out of this, because he’s either going to get killed or go to jail.” That’s one thing that’s been effective.

And even though our schools are closed, they still have all kinds of social services programs. So we have a law enforcement/prosecution/public engagement/youth intervention “team of teams” approach to address the carjackings.


Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Assistant Chief Leslie Parsons

We had 345 carjackings in 2020 compared to 142 in 2019, which is a 143% increase. This year we’re already sitting at 43. The number of stolen autos not taken by carjacking has risen as well.

There’s really no pattern to where it’s happening. The city is broken up into seven districts, and we’ve seen an increase in all seven. It’s been a small increase in some, and a giant increase in others. The main thoroughfares, business districts, and neighborhoods are all targets, so there hasn’t been much of a pattern in these cases.

The victims are ordinary folks. It could be somebody sitting outside warming their cars up. It could be somebody who parks their car, gets on their phone, and isn’t paying attention to what’s going on around them. We’re also seeing delivery drivers targeted – Uber Eats, Instacart, etc. And we’ve seen suspects getting into Uber cars.

Around the holidays we had the carjacking of Amazon vehicles and UPS trucks, as well as the private couriers who work for Amazon. They were carjacking the vehicles, taking them a short distance away, taking what they wanted, and abandoning the vehicle. But we haven’t seen that since the holidays.

We’re not seeing a great deal of victims being assaulted. We’re seeing that they’re producing firearms, or a knife in a few cases. We’re also seeing the threat of a firearm, meaning somebody reaching into their jacket or pocket insinuating that they have a weapon. But we haven’t seen many cases where victims are assaulted.

School just came back at 25% capacity this week. I’m hopeful that that will level things off a bit.

We have assembled a carjacking task force. We have a team of detectives focusing on these. They receive these carjacking cases and pattern robberies, because we’ll see them steal a car and then go commit a handful of street robberies while they have the vehicle.

There’s no car that we see stolen significantly more than others. We’ve seen Land Rovers and Porsches, and we’ve had Hyundais and Hondas. There’s really no targeting of any high-end cars that stands out.


New Orleans Superintendent Shaun Ferguson

We had a 154% increase in carjackings from 2019 to 2020. It is more prevalent at night, but we’re starting to see it occur at all hours of the day. There’s no specific type of victims. It’s strictly a crime of opportunity. People might be warming up their cars or sitting in their cars talking on the phone when they’re approached. We’ve seen people accosted while leaving grocery stores as well.

Over the last two years, about 25% of our carjackings have been committed by the same 35 individuals. The wheels of justice just aren’t moving like they did pre-COVID. That has a tremendous impact on us here. We’re making arrests, but the criminal element is becoming bolder and more brazen because they’re not seeing any consequences to their actions.

I’ve met with others in the criminal justice system, including the chief judge of our criminal court, the chief judge of our juvenile court, our newly-elected district attorney, and our public defender’s office. We’ve all committed to sitting down and identifying the challenges in our various shops. As a result, we’re starting to see the different components make a difference. And we’re educating the community about the criminal justice system.

We created a violent crime abatement team last October. That includes our officers, investigators from our state troopers, and our FBI partners. Their focus is on homicides, shootings, armed robberies, and carjackings. We’re starting to see this catch traction. We’ve seen more interaction, more arrests, and the education piece has allowed us to bring more attention to the system. But we know we still have a long way to go, because this pandemic isn’t going away yet.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.