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What’s Driving the Increase in Carjackings in Louisville?

By Josh Crawford

Over the last several years, stories of carjackings seem to have blanketed the nightly news in Louisville. From teenage passengers being shot to a juvenile suspect leading the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) on a car chase, there seems to be a new story of a dramatic armed car theft every few days. Even one of the men charged with the murder of Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Shirley has been indicted on separate federal carjacking charges.

Unfortunately, the increase in carjackings isn’t just perception. From 2019 to 2021, there was a 206% increase in carjackings according to LMPD data.

The increase in carjackings isn’t unique to Louisville. New Orleans, LA, Kansas City, MO, Chicago, IL, Philadelphia, PA, and Washington, DC all experienced significant increases in carjackings over the last few years. So, what’s going on?

First, it’s important to understand what motivates would-be carjackers. Research suggests that carjacking is a crime of opportunity, with potential perpetrators alert to evolving opportunities. Would-be carjackers are not mere opportunists, though. They are often marked by a reasonably high level of sophistication and criminal expertise. This includes the ability to properly assess the suitability of a target and effectively communicate that suitability to other participants.

According to a 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics brief, 93 percent of reported carjackings are perpetrated by males, and in 56 percent of reported carjackings, there was more than one offender involved in the incident. That same brief found that victims were more likely to be men than women, Black than White, and Hispanic than non-Hispanic. In 90 percent of reported carjackings, the victim was driving alone.

A 2017 study of carjackings in Detroit found that location also mattered. In fact, in that study, six micro-locations were particularly susceptible to carjackings. These and other locations with frequent carjackings were close to gas stations; convenience and liquor stores; bus stops; residential and commercial job sites; areas with high concentrations of drug arrests and restaurants. These locations offer either an easy place for offenders to conceal themselves, require drivers to get in and out of their car, or both.

But all of this has been true for years, so what changed?

Dallas Chief of Police Eddie Garcia recently testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue on behalf of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Among other things, Chief Garcia noted,

" [An] increase in the number of carjackings committed by juveniles. These offenders can be as young as 11, 12, or 13 years old in some instances. Often, juveniles commit carjackings to go on joyrides or as part of a gang initiation. Even more concerning, there are instances where individuals commit these crimes for “clout” and to gain notoriety on social media. The most prominent example is the “Kia Boys” in Milwaukee. As part of this disturbing trend, groups of juveniles will steal vehicles, primarily Kias and Hyundais, and take them for joyrides. They’ll then post videos on social media in a bid to outdo each other. In addition to the thefts themselves, the reckless manner in which these individuals often drive is a public safety risk."

Chief Garcia went on to note that “[w]hile juveniles perpetrate many of the carjackings in major cities, few face serious consequences” and that existing penal structure in many jurisdictions incentivizes older gang members to pressure juveniles to commit shootings or carry their guns.

The trend in carjackings in Louisville comports with Chief Garcia’s testimony. A growing number of arrestees for carjackings in the city have been juveniles.

Additionally, from 2019-2021, 19.4 percent of all juvenile arrestees for carjacking were 14 or under.

In response to increased carjackings in 2020, a federal task force was formed bringing together the U.S. Attorney’s Office, FBI, LMPD, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms, Homeland Security Investigations, Jefferson Co. Sheriff’s Office, and the Kentucky State Police. The goal of the task force was to build federal cases where carjacking is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, or 25 if the victim is seriously injured.

In the first few months of 2022, carjackings are down a little over 30% in Louisville, with 58 incidents through mid-April. This is a potentially positive sign, but as we approach the warmer months, the crime rates traditionally increase. Moreover, according to LMPD Major Mindy Vance, the majority of suspects in these cases are still juveniles, who spend little time in custody upon arrest.

That means there is more to be done.

A number of tools currently exist that may help in reducing juvenile involvement in carjackings. First, if Chief Garcia is right and gangs are pressuring youth to commit more violent offenses, a 2018 law made it a Class C felony for an adult to recruit a child into a gang in Kentucky. LMPD should use this tool to build cases against these adults and disincentive using children in these violent and reckless acts.

When it comes to the juvenile offenders themselves, a number of changes and approaches are likely needed. A mentorship program in Chicago is being used to focus social service resources on would-be juvenile offenders as well as juveniles already involved with the justice system. But these individuals also need to be held accountable. Unfortunately, a 2022 bill that would have ensured that violent juvenile offenders stay in custody for up to 48 hours before they saw a judge failed to make its way through the state legislature, leaving the status quo in place.

Finally, there are things Louisville drivers should consider doing that would make them a less appealing victim. This is referred to as “target hardening.” Locking your doors, leaving your windows up, and driving with a passenger when it’s dark out can go a long way towards dissuading a would-be carjacker.

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