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Car theft and violent carjackings continue to happen more frequently than in years past. The pandemic shook up most statistics and even lowered many violent crimes. However, carjackings not only are going up but are going up specifically at the hands of teenagers. Even more, interestingly, most cars are being either crashed or abandoned, giving the distinct feeling to some researchers that many teens may be doing violent carjacking for sport. 

black and white photo of a man with a gun stealing a car
carjacking 1920 | Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images

Are carjackings going up along with car theft? 

Philadelphia is on track to double its carjackings from last year. Chicago alone had over 1,900 carjackings in 2021, the highest number in decades. And other major cities across the country are seeing similar trends. 

When we say “carjacking,” we mean a car is stolen – often with a weapon – from someone. Car theft typically means stealing an unattended car, at least for the purposes of this piece. 

Why would car thefts and carjackings be on the rise? Well, like nearly everything else these days, these numbers are directly related to the pandemic. Since everyone was home, home robbery rates dropped in 2020. However, carjackings rose. 

Between the economic hardships of the pandemic, the changing car tech, and even something as subtle as an increase in new delivery drivers driving new routes, crime rates are rising. But is there something scarier beneath these more logical explanations? 

Could this jump in carjackings be a game for kids? 

The New York Times reports Tariq Majeed, a 45-year-old father of three and owner of a car detailing business, told NYT that he believes this growing trend of carjacking could be due to a game. 

While working on a customer’s BMW earlier this week, he was confronted by someone with a gun who demanded the BMW’s keys. While trying to comply, the armed figure bashed Majeed with the butt of his pistol, taking the BMW keys as the victim stumbled. Majeed estimates that his attacker couldn’t have been older than a teenager. 

After the incident, Majeed called the police, who quickly found the BMW abandoned just a ways down the road. The car’s anti-theft system shut it down, and the young thief just left it and ran. When the police returned the BMW, they told Majeed that they had just returned from another carjacking of a Dodge Durango also left abandoned.

“I honestly believe it’s a game,” Mr. Majeed said. He said that stolen cars used to be stripped down, with the parts sold for cash. Now people are carjacked, and the cars are often found afterward, crashed, or just left on the street. “It’s a game.” 

Carjackers are shockingly young

The part that has researchers worried isn’t just the increase in violent carjackings but the age of the alleged criminals. Kids as young as 11-years-old have been arrested. 

“They are children,” Robert J. Contee III, chief of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, said at a news conference in early February about a carjacking task force formed with the police in a neighboring county. “The fact that between Prince George’s County and D.C., we have over 200 young people that committed a carjacking is staggering to me.” 

The New York Times mentions that carjackings are tough crimes to track because they get lumped in with other crimes like assault, theft, or murder. To make matters worse, the arrest rate for carjackings is extremely low, as low as one in eight, as a matter of fact. Reports show that young folks get caught more often than older criminals, so that could affect the optics of it all. 

However, that doesn’t mean young folks aren’t doing the majority of the carjackings per capita. Karl A. Racine, the District of Columbia attorney general, reported that “from 2020 to 2021, his office saw a 60 percent drop in the number of juvenile cases in virtually every category of violent crime.” These numbers were not consistent with carjackings. For these cases, the number of young offenders has tripled. For example, of the 426 carjackings in Washington D.C. in 2021, nearly half of these were committed by people under the age of 18. 

Why are more kids involved in these crimes? 

 The executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Action for Children, Kimberly Perry, says the pandemic hit kids really hard. Between the stress and boredom of it all, she says, “We just plain lost some kids.” 

One 16-year-old boy at E.L. Haynes – a D.C. Charter school – blames the internet saying, “The internet just took over. Everybody tried to go viral, doing stupid stuff.” He went on to say that some kids he knew started jumping into idling cars for a joyride, and then these videos began popping up online.

Before long, “carjacking became a sport,” said one community organizer. “A big bandwagon,” said another. 

“A thrill, almost like a fad,” Warees Majeed said. “When you don’t have activities in their communities, everything’s shut down; young people are going to find a way to entertain themselves. It’s recreation; that’s what it is.”


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