Carjacking becoming a youth ‘sport’ as numbers climb – Baltimore Sun
It was still dark at 6 a.m. as Terry Rawlings Sr. guided his cherry-red Acura CL through Southwest Baltimore. He was heading to the gym to lift weights before his shift as a truck driver.
The 51-year-old was on Washington Boulevard near Bayard Street when his car was rear-ended by a Nissan Altima.
He pulled over and stepped out to check the damage. Before him stood a young man about 6 feet tall in a long black jacket, black athletic pants and New Balance sneakers.
“This is my mom’s car,” he told Rawlings. “I’m going to be in trouble.”
Rawlings turned to look at his rear bumper. He saw only slight damage.
“Well, look,” he said. “We can handle it.”
Then he turned back to the other driver. A semi-automatic handgun stared back.
“Don’t make me kill you, bitch,” the young man said.
Rawlings had been set up in a bump-and-rob carjacking. The man shoved Rawlings, jumped into his Acura and sped off. An accomplice trailed in the Altima.
Carjackings in Baltimore have more than tripled since 2013, and the number has continued to climb in the first weeks of 2017, at a rate that has far outpaced other auto thefts. Some other U.S. cities are also seeing increases.
Law enforcement officers and analysts see several reasons for the spike. Police in Baltimore note that the overwhelming majority of suspects are young men or juveniles, emboldened by the relative ease of the crime, and a belief that if they’re caught, the courts will not treat them harshly.
Some see the increase as an unintended consequence of better antitheft security. Electronic key fobs and codes, required to start newer-model cars, have made them more difficult to steal — unless the driver is present.
And it’s easier to resell a car that has been driven away with its keys than one that’s been hotwired, its windows smashed and its steering column busted.
The crime remains relatively rare in Baltimore — there were 402 carjackings in 2016, or little more than one a day in a city of 620,000. There were 5,161 auto thefts, or more than 14 per day.
Still, those 402 carjackings were a 42 percent jump from the year before — and a 224 percent leap from 2013. Auto thefts climbed 14 percent from 2013 to 2016.
Researchers have long predicted a shift toward carjacking.
“Stealing unoccupied cars has become increasingly difficult in recent years owing to improved anti-theft technology, and doing so can be both time-consuming and dangerous,” researchers from the University of Texas-Dallas, Georgia State and University of Missouri-St. Louis wrote in a 2003 study. “The car must be broken into and hot-wired, often to the accompaniment of a blaring alarm.”
Baltimore Police Maj. Kimberly Burrus commands the detective unit that investigates robberies in the city.
“I think we saw [more of] a rise in carjacking, as opposed to the stolen autos, because of the auto industry changes,” she said.
Threat of violence
Carjacking is less common in Baltimore than many other crimes — the city has averaged about 241 per year since 2013. And rarely does it result in death. But injuries can occur.
In December, police say, two teens approached then-City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector in a parking garage, threw her to the ground, beat her and stole her car.
Later that month, police say, a 13-year-old boy approached the car of a retired Baltimore police officer, opened the door and flashed a replica handgun. The retired police officer shot the boy in the head. He survived, police said.
In January, police say, a man and an accomplice with a replica handgun assaulted a driver and stole his green 2009 Toyota Corolla.
In carjacking, researchers say, violence or the threat of violence is essential.
“Violent offenders deal in the currency of fear when enacting predatory crime,” University of Texas-Dallas sociologist Bruce Jacobs wrote in 2013. “Nowhere is this more true than in carjacking — a menacing form of robbery.”
Most carjackers carry a weapon, crime reports show. The majority of carjackings involve multiple suspects, who outnumber drivers. Suspects and victims rarely know each other.
All of those elements drive victims’ fear, reducing resistance and decreasing the need for violence.
Carjackers also use “normalcy illusions” to catch victims unaware, Jacobs wrote. Sometimes a simple request for a cigarette or the time of day allows a carjacker to close in on a driver. Carjackers might blitz a driver, coming up on them suddenly with guns in faces.
Burrus called it a crime of opportunity.
“You can be walking away from your car, you could be exiting your car when you’re walking toward an establishment,” Burrus said. “In some cases, they could pull up next to you.”
A 1992 carjacking in Howard County drove a national scare.
Pam Basu of Savage was driving her 22-month-old daughter to her first day of nursery school when two males yanked her out of her BMW.
Basu tried to save her child but got caught in a seat belt and was dragged to death.
A 27-year-old man and a 17-year-old youth were convicted of first-degree murder, and Congress passed a federal carjacking law.
Maryland legislators approved stiffer sentences for carjacking. State law allows judges to sentence carjackers to up to 30 years in prison. The maximum for car theft is five years.
In Baltimore, 382 people have been charged with carjacking or armed carjacking between 2014 and 2016, including 146 last year, according to the Maryland Judiciary.
Frank G. Scafidi was an FBI agent based in Washington when Basu was killed.
Now a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, he remembers the impact of the crime.
“There was such fear in everyday driving that no matter where you stopped, if it was night, you were susceptible to someone coming up to your car and sticking a gun in your face,” he said.
“Today you still see it. If you see it within a population of Baltimore that’s primarily juveniles that begs the question: What is causing that population to do that crime?”
Burrus said carjackers are mostly young men and teens looking for cars to ride around in at their leisure.
They prefer newer models, she said; Honda Crosstours seem to be a popular choice.
“They tend to be your Hondas and your Acuras and more of your high-ends like your BMWs and your Range Rovers, which are hard to steal if they’re parked,” she said. “They use them and kind of claim them as their own, believe it or not.”