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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaks near 71st Street and Vincennes Avenue on May 23, 2023. Dart said law enforcement officers have recovered “over 200 vehicles within a half mile radius of this location that had been carjacked.”

Patrick Smith

Authorities are recovering more carjacked vehicles in Chicago, providing crucial data

Two years after the creation of a specialized carjacking task force, numbers from the Cook County sheriff’s office show law enforcement agencies in and around Chicago are recovering nearly 9 out of every 10 carjacked vehicles. That is a huge increase from 2020 and sheriff Tom Dart says authorities are learning more about who is doing the carjacking and why.

Meanwhile, data from the sheriff also show the number of carjacking incidents is trending downward.

“It’s very, very childish to try to take, you know, all the credit for it. But I can honestly just tell you, we went from being really good people with not as much organization and structure to a very, very structured program that’s very data driven. And that’s helped a great deal,” Dart said.

Despite the progress, city data show the arrest rate for carjacking in Chicago is still below 10%.

“Taken by surprise”

The regional carjacking task force was formed in March 2021 in response to a dramatic increase in hijackings during the pandemic. Data from the city of Chicago show the number of vehicular hijacking victimizations leapt up from 736 in 2019 to 1,684 in 2020. The number got even higher in 2021 before starting to recede last year.

“We were all sort of taken by surprise … on how rapidly these numbers increased,” Dart remembered. “And then just the breadth of it, that it was not relegated to one particular area or one particular region, it was something that really required us to have a global type of approach.”

The task force is a collaboration between the sheriff, Chicago Police, state police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and suburban departments.

Roe Conn, a former radio host and a sheriff’s employee, leads the team from an upscale office with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Chicago’s iconic Holy Name Cathedral. There, Conn’s unit analyzes carjacking data to “try to put together living models for how, when, where and, in some cases, why these crimes are being committed.”

“The most important thing we can do is we can map it, you can see where these incidents are happening, you can see where they’re terminating, and see where cars are being recovered,” Conn said. “So it gives law enforcement a better sense, especially our partners in the Chicago Police Department … of where they can be to recover cars, or where they can patrol to try to at least stem some of the tide.”

The result, according to numbers provided by the sheriff, has been an increase in recovered vehicles, up from about 40% of carjacked cars recovered in 2020 to close to 90% in 2022. The length of time between when cars are stolen and when they are recovered has also been dropping, going from eight days recovery time in 2020 to a little more than four days recovery time last year.

Most of the vehicles are recovered less than five miles from where they were stolen.

Conn said through anonymous interviews with people who have been convicted of carjacking, combined with their data about how many cars are recovered, where they’re found and how quickly, they’ve concluded that most of the cars being stolen are used “primarily in the commission of other crimes … whether it’s another carjacking, whether it’s shootings, homicides, kidnappings, narcotics transportation.”

Conn said some of the cars are being sold for cash shortly after they are stolen, but often the purchaser then uses the car to commit crimes as well.

“There is a sense out there that there are cars that are just being stolen so that they can be resold in other states or around the world somewhere,” Conn said. “We do see that, but it’s by far the vast minority of these cases.”

Recoveries are dispelling the conventional wisdom about carjackers

In March 2021, shortly after the task force was formed, then-Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown told reporters that most of the hijackings were being done by kids seeking quick, cheap thrills.

“It’s a shame that you’ll hold a gun to someone’s head just to joyride, but that seems to be what our young people are doing that we’re capturing,” Brown said at a press conference.

Then, last year, University of Chicago professor Robert Vargas published a study looking at car recoveries by Chicago police between 2017 and 2021, and found the data indicated it was not capricious kids robbing people of their cars for fun, but rather sophisticated criminals with a profit motive. Vargas hypothesized the cars were most likely being sold on the black market, either whole or in parts.

Dart said the increase in vehicles recovered and the information sharing through the task force has helped them learn more about the people behind the carjackings … and Dart believes it’s proven both Brown and Vargas wrong.

If the cars were being resold then authorities wouldn’t be recovering so many after just a few days, and so close to where they were originally stolen.

And Dart said many of the people being arrested for carjacking are juveniles, but they’re not out stealing cars so they can “joyride” as Brown said.

He said carjackings are mostly being carried out by organized crews with pre-planning and sophistication. He said the crews almost always include young people because they face less serious criminal penalties if they get caught.

“This notion that somehow it was this very chaotic, disorganized operation couldn’t be any further from the truth,” Dart said. “Do you get these carjackings of opportunity? I guess, yeah, you get those. But most of these were very, very well-organized groups.”

Still, Dart acknowledged that despite the increase in recoveries, they are “only catching a small percentage of the people doing” the carjacking. Data from the city of Chicago indicate police made an arrest in less than 9% of carjacking incidents in 2022, up from less than 6% in 2020.

Dart blamed the lack of arrests and charges on sophistication by the carjacking crews, who he said often put children in the driver’s seat, or swap out drivers to make cases harder to prove. Typically when they recover cars, they’ve already been abandoned or transferred to someone who wasn’t actually involved in the carjacking.

Dart said state legislation that recently passed both chambers in Springfield and still needs to be signed by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker would hopefully make it easier to catch carjackers right after the theft.

That legislation would require automakers to staff 24/7 call centers to provide car location information to law enforcement after carjackings.

“The more we narrow [the time between theft and recovery] the higher the chance that we will get charges, and we’ll get the appropriate charges, because [we know] that was the person you know, we got it within four blocks,” Dart said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.

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