WASHINGTON - Car hijacking is a horrible scourge that South Africans are unfortunately all too familiar with, but it’s not something that one would expect to be a big problem in a country such as the USA.
And yet it is...
A year of the coronavirus has given rise to what US police leaders call an alarming trend: bored, wayward teenagers pointing guns in peoples' faces and carjacking them.
In Chicago, the frequency of the crime more than doubled in 2020 to a rate of about four per day. Three teenagers are charged with murder after a 65-year-old retired firefighter was shot in December during a noontime hold-up in a busy shopping district.
New Orleans has seen a similar spike as teenagers know they're less apt to be punished. "The wheels of justice," said that city's top police official, Shaun Ferguson, "just aren't moving like they did pre-covid."
And in Washington, total carjackings hit 345 in 2020 compared with 142 the year before. Things are only getting worse this year, with 46 carjackings through early February.
The rise in carjackings includes plenty of adult suspects. Experts say the coronavirus has made jobs more scarce and - because people are home all day - made breaking into homes more of a risk.
Pandemic reality also applies to juveniles. Schools are closed and youth programs are shuttered. Precautions against packing children into locked, juvenile facilities has led to their quick release while reductions to in-person contact has made them more difficult to monitor.
"We're not giving them enough supervision. That really created a problem," says Tim Hardy, the longtime director of the juvenile court in Yuma, Ariz, and president of the American Probation and Parole Association.
Carjacking suspects often cross police jurisdictions - hitting the driver in one area and taking the car into the other. The alarming increase in carjackings has prompted law enforcement to create task forces to stem the problem, such as one formed this month by police in the Washington region and the FBI.
Victims have been left terrified and bewildered
"I felt like my life was about to end," says a 25-year-old who was driving through an affluent section of Washington at 1:30am before being halted by masked suspects standing directly in front of him in the road and pointing rifles. The gunmen forced him from his car and sped off, police say.
Two weeks later in adjacent Montgomery County, a pair of teenagers approached a 23-year-old sitting in his parked car, according to police records. One pointed a handgun, while the other shouted: "Shoot him! Shoot him! Get it over with!" The driver got out and the suspects drove off in his Honda Accord.
Minutes earlier, according to court papers, the pair had made a similar, unsuccessful attempt in the parking lot of nearby 7-Eleven. As they threatened to shoot a man while kicking and punching him, a store employee came out and began video recording the attack - forcing them to run off empty-handed. Police arrested the two teens that night after a high-speed chase of the stolen Accord down Interstate 270.
"Sixteen-year-olds just being dumb," said the 7-Eleven victim, who, like the driver in the District, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy.
There are no nationwide statistics on carjacking, as many enforcement agencies lump the crime into more general robbery tallies. And not everyone is convinced the spikes go beyond select cities that are seeing a wave of carjackings.
But the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank that regularly consults with chiefs across the country, found that "with many schools closed for in-person education, school-aged youths with free time - some as young as 12-15 - are committing a large portion of the increase in carjackings."
"The pandemic comes into play with the offenders who have been arrested," Minneapolis Deputy Chief of Investigations Kathy Waite told the organization. "Nobody wants to hold anybody in our jail system, especially with our juvenile offenders."
Minneapolis saw 405 carjackings in 2020 compared with 101 the year before. The same suspects have been linked to many of the crimes, Waite said, and needlessly unleash violence.
Ferguson, the New Orleans police superintendent, told PERF that carjackings rose 154 percent in his city from 2019 to 2020, prompting his department to launch a violent-crime abatement team last fall.
"We're making arrests, but the criminal element is becoming bolder and more brazen because they're not seeing any consequences to their actions," Ferguson told PERF.
No city seems harder hit than Chicago. Police there say teenagers have driven the skyrocketing carjacking rate.
"To them it's just a game, like 'Grand Theft Auto,' " Chicago Police Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said in an interview. "They're extremely young, terrorizing people, and a lot of them feel, 'It's just somebody's car, it's no big deal.' "
The prevalence of masks during the pandemic, he said, has made it difficult for victims to identify suspects.
"If we are fortunate enough to arrest someone, it's still an extremely difficult case to prove," Deenihan said. "This continues to exacerbate the problem - juveniles caught in stolen cars aren't charged, and get released."
Chicago police ramped up its focus on carjacking, Deenihan said, after the slaying of Dwain Williams, a retired firefighter who was walking to his car when three armed men leaped from a passing car, then shot him.
Avik Das, director of juvenile probation for at Chicago's Cook County Circuit Court, declined to say whether the coronavirus had led to more teenagers committing carjackings. But in an email, Das said that"the pandemic continues to expose inequities in resources at the neighborhood level that may otherwise steer children away from engaging in such dangerous and troublesome activity."
Although the pandemic has made it easier to communicate with teenagers with phone or video links, virtual supervision generally is not as effective, especially since it has been coupled with reduced in-person counseling programs.
"What we see with kids on probation is we really need to keep them busy," Hardy says, adding that health precautions has made doing so difficult. "We've got to do more than we're doing. We're failing these kids."
Maryland has seen more juveniles charged with carjacking: 259 in 2020 compared to 136 the year before, according to state figures. Those numbers don't include juveniles who were charged as adults for carjacking and remain charged as adults.
Early in the pandemic, much of the criminal justice system - judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors - agreed with public health experts who viewed the confined quarters of jails as especially vulnerable to covid-19 outbreaks. They worked to reduce the number of potential carriers sent into confinement.
That can be seen in Maryland's numbers. In the first 10 full months of the pandemic, an average of 61 juvenile-charged suspects were placed in detention at the state's Department of Juvenile Services (DJS), compared to 194 a month for same period a year earlier, according to state figures.
For those allowed to live at home with ankle monitors, coronavirus restrictions also have slowed down routine processing, which delays the evaluations needed for counseling and treatment programs, said Ashley Watson, a case manager at the Cheltenham Youth Detention Center in Cheltenham, Md.
"They're waiting for the next step," said Watson,who spoke to The Post in her capacity as an AFSCME union steward for those who work at DJS. "A lot can happen to a child's life in 30 days before we get a chance to try to help them."
As for kids ultimately committed to DJS facilities, that population stood at 35 statewide in January 2021, compared with 113 in January 2020.
Paul Zmuda, a former prosecutor and longtime defense attorney in Maryland with a large juvenile client practice, said most of his teenage clients don't attend virtual classes. Kids are discouraged, restless and bored, he says, and their propensity to commit crime follows with more lenient consequences.
"Kids used to know, 'Hey, this is what you can get - juvenile detention,' " Zmuda said.
Eric Solomon, a DJS spokesman, said there too many variables at play to make correlations between covid-19 and crime totals.
"It's too early to tell what the factors are with youth crime," Solomon said.
He added that some of the declining populations inside DJS facilities also may reflect declines in overall arrests during the pandemic. And Solomon pointed to pandemic-related factors that may swing the other direction.
"We have seen more parental supervision at home," said Solomon, adding that virtual communication has led to improved relationships with kids: "The department has seen better outcomes with youth during the covid pandemic."
Regardless of who is committing the carjackings, another aspect of the coronavirus - ubiquitous face coverings - may be playing a role.
"If everyone around you is wearing a mask, you can't distinguish who is good and who is bad," says Christopher Herrmann, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The reality is, it doesn't take long for a guy with a mask to whip out a gun - three seconds - and get from the curb to your car."
Masked suspects certainly have struck in Montgomery County, Md., which recorded 11 carjackings last month compared with none in January 2020.
"I'm scared someone is going to get killed," says Marcus Jones, the county's police chief.
In January, a woman was attacked at gunpoint after filling the tank of her Audi in a Chevy Chase gas station - a carjacking caught on video surveillance that sparked widespread attention. The driver fought back and got hit in the face just before the assailant zoomed off in her car. The next day, after spotting and pursuing the car in Prince George's County, police arrested a 19-year-old.
"My strategy for living during the time of covid has been to primarily run errands or go shopping in the evening to reduce my risk of exposure from others," she said recently. "Never did I think that by doing this, I might actually be increasing my risk for becoming the victim of a violent crime."