Thieves brag on social media as Chicago carjacking surge leads to highest number in a decade

A surge in carjackings in Chicago led to the highest number of vehicle thefts in more than a decade, as Windy City cops trying to get the city's murder problem under control increasingly find themselves playing criminal whack-a-mole, with the carjacking menace the newest threat to show its head.

And it's not just Chicago. St. Louis, Milwaukee and Baltimore are among the metropolitan areas experiencing an increase in carjackings, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. Police in St. Louis, a city which has established a carjacking task force to fight the problem, told the newspaper that gang members often take to the Internet to boast about their thefts.

“You’ll have one of them post that they got a Lexus, and then the other responds and say he stole a Mercedes,” said St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Maj. Kenneth Kegel. “It is almost like a game, where they want to one up each other.”

In Chicago, carjackings have risen sharply over the last year, from about 700 in 2016 to 950 in 2017 – the highest level in more than a decade. So far this year there have been at least 100, even though the city appears to be getting a better handle on murders and shootings, which fell 16 and 21 percent, respectively, between 2016 and 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Meanwhile, carjackings in St. Louis rose from 74 in 2012 to 197 in 2017, and went up 35 percent in Baltimore between 2016 and 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal. But nationally the crime can be difficult to track, as neither the FBI or the Major Cities Chiefs Association – a group of police officials from the largest cities in the nation – keep records on carjackings.

Police and crime experts told the Wall Street Journal the surge is also attributed to repeat offenders who use the stolen vehicles to carry out other crimes.

“Both car thefts and jackings have been driven by a need for a motor vehicle to commit additional crimes,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told the newspaper. “That crime may be a retaliatory homicide…or the vehicle is sometimes traded for drugs.”

Recent carjacking arrests in Chicago include three teens who tried to escape with a car belonging to a retired police officer, who, with the help of witnesses, kept them at the scene until cops arrived, according to reports. Three teens were also arrested in December after being spotted driving the wrong way down a street in a car stolen from a Chicago Tribune reporter, police said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, lawmakers and community leaders called Sunday for tougher state laws to deal with carjackers.

Carjacking arrests have doubled in the Windy City this year because of more surveillance equipment and crime-prediction software. But officers and a police union there say light punishment for motor crimes in Illinois and a pursuit policy that prevents cops from chasing vehicles driving erratically – out of fear of injuring bystanders – is playing a role in the carjacking surge.

“Our mission is clear: we want to prevent carjackings and cars from being stolen to strengthen community safety,” Emanuel said Sunday. “As a challenge facing communities across the state, we are seeking to use the laws better and more effectively to give victims a better chance to get justice in court.”

Legislation proposed by the group would make it easier for victims of car thefts to pursue Possession of a Stolen Motor Vehicle charges, which can carry up to a 7-year prison term.

Under current Illinois state law, police can only pursue those charges if they establish that someone driving a reported stolen vehicle has knowledge it was stolen, which can be difficult to prove, the mayor’s office says.

Because of that, the majority of car thieves in Chicago and the state are getting off with a lesser misdemeanor charge, it added.

Since January of last year, 74 percent of motor vehicle theft charges were filed as misdemeanor criminal trespass to vehicle, while only 21 percent were hit with the more serious Possession of a Stolen Motor Vehicle charge, according to statistics from the mayor’s office.

“Whenever someone’s personal property and safety have been violated, we need to do whatever we can to ensure that they are made whole again,” said Illinois state Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr. “The legislation announced today will allow us to give some level of closure to victims and help us to reduce future incidents.”

Emanuel and Johnson also announced Sunday that police cruisers are being outfitted with license plate readers. The changes come about a week after police in Chicago said they were teaming up with federal authorities, including agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to deal with the carjacking surge.