A new study from University of Chicago researchers raises questions about what exactly has driven the recent surge in carjackings in the city.
Chicago police officials have repeatedly laid the blame at the feet of the city’s young people, saying the violent car thefts are motivated by kids seeking joyrides or looking for a vehicle to use in other crimes.
But the study from Professor Robert Vargas, director of the UChicago Justice Project, noted that very few carjacked vehicles are ever recovered by Chicago police and concluded that the cars are most likely being sold on the black market, either whole or in parts. Vargas concluded that most carjackings are likely done by adults with economic motivations.
The study found that from 2017-2021, Chicago police have recovered less than one in five carjacked vehicles. CPD had recovered just 10% of the vehicles carjacked in 2021 as of Feb. 8, 2022, when the data was provided.
“When you look at these numbers, it’s hard to line these facts up with the narrative that our city leaders have put out that the spike is being driven by young people seeking joyrides,” Vargas said about the findings. “Because unless young people are extremely good at hiding cars after having gone for a joyride, it seems like there’s some pretty strong economic incentives going on here and things linked to the informal economy, which suggests a far different set of interventions needed to address the problem.”
Chicago police officials did not respond to questions for this story.
“Just to joyride”
Like other forms of gun violence, carjacking shot up shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began. In the years prior to 2020, there were fewer than 1,000 carjackings each year, according to the study. Last year, there were more than 2,000 such incidents. And city data show carjackings are on pace to be even higher this year.
In press conferences over the last 18 months, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown has highlighted the extremely young age of some of the alleged carjackers they’ve arrested and called for a combination of more services and more “accountability” for young people as a way to stem the tide of carjackings.
At a March 10, 2021 news conference, Brown said the No. 1 motivation for carjackings was joyriding.
“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.
But Vargas said the data he got from the Police Department show that at best the city does not have enough information to know who is actually doing most of the carjacking and what is motivating them. And at worst, the data that is available appears to contradict the police narrative, he said.
Vargas said it means the city could be focusing on potential solutions that won’t actually address the underlying causes of the carjacking problem.
“If the vast majority of carjacking incidents are being motivated by economic incentives, then it means that youth programming alone isn’t going to be sufficient to address the problem. It means that the problem is being driven by economic need,” Vargas said. “And when you look at the fact that the carjacking spike occurred just as the pandemic and the economic downturn hit, it makes logical sense that a lot of the carjacking is tied to the tremendous increase in economic need in Chicago’s disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
Vargas said he was inspired to dig into the carjacking data because of the huge amount of attention being given to the problem by politicians and the media. He said that attention makes sense considering that the dangerous and terrifying crime became much more common over the past two years, but he said the “type of attention” failed to give an accurate picture of the problem. And Vargas said there are dangerous, unintended consequences to the Police Department’s decision to focus on the young people committing carjackings.
“There are already so many stereotypes that young kids of color face when they’re walking through Chicago neighborhoods. And so to paint an issue like carjacking as a youth issue, particularly a youth of color issue when it might, in fact, not be, I think [it] unnecessarily reinforces the stereotypes about these young people,” Vargas said. “That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be investing in additional programming. But there’s something about scapegoating the youth population … that I think in the long run, I think probably does more harm than good.”