On January 22, the City Council’s public safety committee held a five-and-a-half hour Zoom hearing on carjackings, a crime that has surged across the country since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year Chicago had more than 1,400 carjackings—800 more than in 2019, and the highest it’s been in two decades. News about these attacks were on TV and in the papers nearly every day. “Three CPD Officers Wounded In Shootout With Carjacking Suspect,” CBS2 reported in July. “Boy, 15, Fatally Struck on Eisenhower Expressway Following Carjacking,” NBC5 announced in September. “Ride-share drivers carjacked in Roseland,” the Sun-Times proclaimed in November. “Chicago carjacking numbers not slowing,” a Tribune headline declared in January, above a map that, at first glance, makes the whole city look awash in carjacking cases. “Carjackers smash window, pull woman and daughter, 2, from vehicle in Wicker Park carjacking, Chicago police say,” ABC7 informed us two weeks ago.
The mayor and other city and county officials were regularly asked to weigh in on what appears to be an out-of-control crime wave. Police top brass have frequently addressed carjackings in press conferences, at first telling the public that the stolen cars were used to commit other crimes, then adjusting their analysis to say that most carjackings were done by youth seeking joyrides. Before aldermen began grilling representatives from the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, and the Illinois State Police during the committee meeting, several city residents demanded accountability during the public comment period.
“I’m really tired of feeling like a victim when I come out of my house . . . I can’t feel comfortable inside my car anymore,” said one South Shore resident. She said carjackers were using the pandemic to hide behind masks, and suggested police institute an Amber Alert system for stolen cars.
A Calumet Heights resident said her 30-year-old son had been paralyzed after an attempted carjacking in 2019. “Despite video of the attack, no one had been arrested. Arrest and prosecute offenders regardless of age,” she said.
“Our residents are extremely afraid,” said Seventh Ward superintendent Marcello Siggers. “They don’t want to hear about why these kids may be doing it because they’re not in school—they don’t want to hear about all of that. They want these people held accountable for their actions.”
The perception that young people have been behind the spike in carjackings has been driven by the Chicago Police Department’s selective reporting of its own data. “The majority of our offenders are between 15 and 20 years of age,” Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said at the hearing, flashing a PowerPoint slide in the Zoom meeting. He said that while south and west side neighborhoods have been hit hardest, “there is no neighborhood that’s immune to this crime.”
Deenihan said typically victims are attacked while on their phone in their cars, and the most common location of an attack is “not a gas station, it’s not the grocery store, it’s not your driveway, it’s all of the above.” He said that “there’s unbelievably emboldened criminals” and that when police try to detain them they “take off at high rates of speed and it’s very difficult to stop them.” Victims rarely identify offenders “who stuck a gun in their face for four seconds while armed with a mask and hoodie.” He said that most vehicles are abandoned within a few hours and repeated that the primary motivation for the crime appeared to be joyriding.
As Deenihan rushed through his slides, speaking at a fast, high-pressure clip while having his camera aimed at the side of his clean-shaven face, it was easy to miss what his PowerPoint actually showed: one set of data about carjacking incidents, and another about arrests.
Some of the 1,127 arrests made last year were for vehicular hijacking (taking a car from someone by force, a felony) and aggravated vehicular hijacking (doing it with a weapon or when the victim is a senior citizen or a child under 16 is in the car, also a felony). But 84 percent were for criminal trespass to vehicle (being in a car without the owner’s permission, a misdemeanor). The department was showing the total arrests for all three crimes combined.
From the way CPD has presented the numbers it’s not at all clear how many of the 1,127 arrests were actually related to last year’s 1,417 carjacking cases. Deenihan didn’t explain that oftentimes CPD arrests multiple people related to a single carjacking incident, nor did he mention how many of those arrests were for incidents that happened in prior years. In a table breaking down arrestees’ age ranges in five-year increments, the 15-20 age group was indeed the largest in 2020. More than half of the people arrested, however, were actually over the age of 20.
Deenihan once again glossed over these details as he commented on the 2021 data available. He said there’d been 166 reported carjacking cases in January and 108 arrests—half for misdemeanor criminal trespass to vehicle and the rest for different classes of vehicular hijacking and possession of a stolen motor vehicle (also a felony). He neglected to specify how many of these arrests for vehicle-related crimes were actually related to that month’s carjacking cases.
Within hours of the meeting, though, the local press was reporting Deenihan’s statements without qualification. “Chicago’s other epidemic: A plague of juvenile carjackers,” the Tribune‘s editorial board lamented.
“It’s bullshit. It’s just false. It’s wrong, the way it’s being talked about,” University of Chicago sociologist Robert Vargas told me months later. “From the beginning the city crafted this narrative as if it were young people seeking joyrides who were committing the carjackings, when anyone who’s taken a simple statistics course would know they’re basing their conclusion off a tiny fraction of data.”
A few days after the hearing Vargas, together with University of Chicago data analyst Brian Fenaughty, wrote a letter that was published in the Sun-Times. Based on how many carjackings actually have associated arrests, “CPD has characteristics on just 13 percent of offenders,” they wrote. “In social science, we call this sampling bias, or when members of a population are more likely to be selected in a sample than others.”
Across town at Northwestern University’s law school, Stephanie Kollmann, the policy director at the Children and Family Justice Center, had been ringing similar alarm bells. “In Chicago we unfortunately have a pattern of focusing the spotlight on one crime type and focusing on youth involved in that crime type,” she told me. “Sometimes it’s gun violence, sometimes it’s flash mobs, or the knockout game. The city and media were focusing specifically on young people [in discussing carjackings] and it was being linked to young people being out of school perhaps.” Indeed, during his presentation, Deenihan showed a graph with a sharp drop in carjacking cases between August and September, which he labeled “e-learning school year begins.”
There are many reasons why younger people are more likely to be in the sample of arrestees than in the population of carjackers. They might get caught because they didn’t carefully plan the attack or did it in a group—”hallmarks of youth crime,” Kollmann said. Police are also highly unlikely to make an arrest at any point other than immediately after an attack, and if kids are not as skilled at getting away, they’ll be the ones caught. “They’re less experienced with committing this crime and less experienced driving different models of cars,” Vargas and Fenaughty suggested in their op-ed. As for the idea, expressed by many aldermen, that carjackers tend to be repeat offenders—here, too, CPD’s arrest data could just be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If you’re doing something multiple times you are more likely to get caught,” Kollmann said.
Kollmann pored over CPD’s public data portal online and also filed Freedom of Information Act requests for more detailed information. “What wasn’t being reported was the biggest surprise,” she said.
While carjacking had spiked, last year saw 21,567 fewer robberies, burglaries, and thefts compared to 2019. This was part of a yearslong trend in the decline of these types of crimes. About 18,000 parked, unattended cars are stolen every year in Illinois, and that hadn’t become more common in 2020; CPD claims that these days cars are easier to steal because many people leave their key fobs in their vehicles. “Meanwhile this one uptick in this one subcategory of robbery had story after story and press conference after press conference,” she remarked about carjacking.
One reason carjacking could have become more frequent in a pandemic year, both Kollmann and Vargas posit, is because fewer people are in the streets, reducing opportunities for robbing people on the sidewalk or successfully burglarizing an empty home. “It makes sense that carjacking becomes the primary means of robbing somebody,” Vargas said.
Kollmann said CPD was not only obscuring that it was reporting all vehicle-related arrests alongside the carjacking numbers, but it was also presenting an inflated solve rate for carjacking cases by reporting total numbers of arrestees rather than the numbers of cleared cases. “CPD not solving these crimes is why it feels like nobody is held responsible,” she said. Kollmann saw this as particularly problematic given the department’s abysmally low clearance rate for violent crime in general.
Many of those arrested may just be friends or relatives of the carjackers who joined them in a vehicle after the car was taken. For example, a February Tribune article suggested just such a scenario (though it implied otherwise by labeling all four people involved in the story as “assailants”): A Noble Square man was carjacked at gunpoint by “two male attackers” while digging out his Lexus from the snow. A few hours later police saw the vehicle at a gas station in Austin and arrested four: two boys, 15 and 19, and two girls, also 15 and 19. The victim couldn’t identify any of them and refused to press charges. Three of the four were let go and one was held on an outstanding shoplifting warrant. Arresting passengers from a car that had been carjacked at some earlier time is hardly the same thing as “solving” a carjacking case.
When the Reader filed a FOIA request for CPD’s 2020 carjacking data in February, the department returned records on 1,462 cases. According to the data, arrests were made in just 215 of those cases, or 15 percent. (Even this data is worth considering with a grain of salt: Kollmann had made a similar FOIA request and also looked at data in CPD’s public and semiprivate databases and came up with arrest rates that ranged between 5 and 10 percent.)
The Reader found that 43 percent of those 215 cases (some of which involved arrests of just one suspect, others as many as six) were “cleared” on the same day as the carjacking incident, and another 34 percent of the arrests were made within a week of the attack. The remaining quarter of arrests were just as likely to come within a month of the incident as within three or six. One arrest came more than a year later. In sum, most of those who have been “caught” and charged in relation to a carjacking were caught right away. This doesn’t indicate that the police are successfully investigating or solving carjacking cases.
Several of the arrests listed in the data provided to the Reader were also for charges that didn’t seem related to being in a stolen vehicle at all, though they were linked by the police department to carjacking incidents. For example, last March a 22-year-old Black woman was arrested for driving an uninsured vehicle without a license or registration. The case was linked with the carjacking of a Toyota Rav4 in January, suggesting that the department had cleared a carjacking case with a completely unrelated arrest. CPD declined to answer questions about this case and all other queries for this story.
CPD arrested a total of 366 individuals connected to those 215 cleared carjacking cases, and just over half were under the age of 18. The youngest arrestees were ten years old, and the oldest were in their mid-50s. A fifth of the people arrested reside in the 60612 zip code—an area that covers parts of East Garfield Park, West Town, and the Near West Side. There were three times as many arrestees from there than from each of the next three zip codes with the most arrestees—60644 and 60624 on the west side (Austin and West Garfield Park) and 60628 on the far south side (Roseland and Pullman).
The arrestees were coming predominantly from the same areas where the carjackings had been most common. Though every zip code in the city had experienced at least one carjacking in 2020, the attacks were mostly concentrated in Black neighborhoods—22 percent were in west-side Lawndale and West Garfield Park and south-side Chatham and Greater Grand Crossing. While 14 percent of 2020’s carjacking victims were white, 21 percent of the cases that had associated arrests had white victims.
Though there’s been much speculation about the types of cars being targeted—in particular popular Dodge Chargers and Challengers because of anecdotal reports that they can be hacked—CPD’s data showed that most often carjacked cars are the most common economy vehicle makes: Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Honda, and Chevrolet.
When the Reader asked CPD how many of the 2020 carjacked vehicles had been recovered and returned to owners, the department’s spokespeople refused to answer. At the committee hearing Deenihan had claimed that nearly all carjacked cars are recovered. However, this isn’t part of the information CPD publishes in its public data portal. Both Vargas and Kollmann stressed that to understand what’s driving the carjacking spike, we have to have more data on recovered vehicles. “This is important because carjackings can be part of the informal economy as cars are sold for parts or, according to the FBI, transported out of state for resale,” Vargas and Fenaughty wrote in their op-ed.
Some aldermen at the hearing said that they suspected a “profit motive” behind carjacking, as 40th Ward alderman Andre Vasquez put it. Despite the fact that Deenihan and other CPD representatives disputed that the current carjacking wave was driven by people stealing cars to strip for parts or resell for profit, 22nd Ward alderman Mike Rodriguez said so-called “chop shops,” where stolen cars are dismembered and repurposed, “are the problem” in his southwest-side community.
Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that many victims aren’t getting their vehicles back. Last July, CBS2 reported that over the previous two and a half years only 12 percent of the owners of carjacked or stolen cars had been contacted about their vehicles being recovered. While filing reports, a victim has to tell police that she wants to be contacted if her car is found. Sometimes a victim doesn’t learn that her car was recovered until she gets bills from the impound lot where CPD or the State Police took it for processing.
Last month the Reader filed a FOIA request for all the January 2021 carjacking incident reports and the associated arrests reports to gather more information about the circumstances of the attacks and characteristics of the arrestees. CPD has yet to return a single document, in violation of the state’s open records law.
Despite the obvious shortcomings of CPD’s data, most aldermen at the January hearing seemed ready to take the department at its word. Perhaps because what Deenihan was telling them was mostly confirming what they already believed. For months, the political rhetoric pervasively focused on the idea that there aren’t sufficiently harsh “consequences” for this crime or that perpetrators think there aren’t any consequences. Officials have taken to local news outlets to repeatedly and without evidence claim that kids are recruited by older people and told that they won’t get in trouble for carjacking. Or that kids engage with the world as if they were playing real-life Grand Theft Auto. Or that they’re carjacking to score points on social media. In a chilling echo of the “superpredator” rhetoric of the 1990s, many aldermen seemed to be under the impression that kids who commit carjackings are senseless villains impervious to fear.
“This carjacking is like something out of a video game,” said Seventh Ward alderman Greg Mitchell. “I had to re-educate my older people in the ward and let them know that these kids aren’t the kids that you raised.” He said he was telling constituents to report any suspicious-looking people sitting around in cars on their blocks. “When we see something we need to say something—cars parked on our streets with out-of-state license plates or no license plates, frequent activity at houses, four and five and six young men in a car with no facial hair but with a $100,000 car. These are the things that we cannot let go.”
Thirty-eighth Ward alderman Nicholas Sposato rebuffed the idea that the youth committing carjackings may have unmet mental health needs. “These are bad people, bad kids basically, that maybe have no direction in life,” he said. “From what I know this is not anything to do with mental health.”
The hearing presented an opportunity for aldermen to get on record with tough-on-crime messages. Of the 30 who spoke, 17 made statements calling for harsher punishment. “We need to figure out a way to make the prospect of getting arrested for committing a crime with a firearm a really, really scary proposition for a teenager,” said 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly. “How do we make this more of a crime juveniles as well as adults are afraid to do?” echoed 41st Ward alderman Anthony Napolitano.
The police department has done little to dispel the notion that “there’s not even a slap on the wrist” for carjacking, as 15th Ward alderman Ray Lopez put it. He and many of his colleagues seemed to think that prosecutors don’t seek charges serious enough, or judges don’t mandate pretrial jail time often enough, or the Sheriff’s Office is too loose with its house arrest program. But at the hearing Deenihan didn’t blame other agencies for CPD’s shortcomings. “We have to take some ownership and build better cases and present better cases to [the State’s Attorney Office],” he said. “If there needs to be a change in the law, I’m gonna stay out of that. That’s not our role.”
While at first he did say that “youth intervention has to be huge. Nobody’s interested in mass incarceration, everybody’s interested in changing the child’s behavior,” later Deenihan characterized the same young people he said are behind the carjacking spike as “bad guys” randomly and opportunistically attacking people on the street or rideshare drivers for fun.
The representatives from the State’s Attorney’s Office—Kim Foxx’s chief deputy Risa Lanier, and juvenile justice bureau chief Maryam Ahmad—were more careful about painting those they prosecute with a broad brush. They explained that existing “consequences” are already serious. “I don’t know if changing laws every single time that we have a spike in a certain type of crime will necessarily answer or solve the problem of how do we deter crime,” Lanier said. She bluntly pushed back on 43rd Ward alderwoman Michele Smith’s assertions that trespassing in a vehicle is a gateway crime to carjacking. Meanwhile, Ahmad calmly assured Alderman Mitchell that “not all minors that go through the system reoffend.”
After the hearing, CPD responded to aldermen’s questions about repeat offenders with data that showed that of the more than 2,300 individuals arrested for felony and misdemeanor vehicle-related crime in the last two years, 73 percent have had no subsequent arrests, and only 17 percent have had any further felony arrests. They didn’t specify whether it was the people charged with vehicular hijacking that had subsequent arrests.
Contrary to popular belief—and many unsubstantiated claims from the Sheriff’s Office, Fraternal Order of Police, CPD’s top brass, and conservative legislators—the 2017 Cook County bail reforms that led to fewer people getting sent to jail pretrial have not resulted in more violent crime charges against those people while they’re out in the community. A Loyola University study released last November found that the chances of someone out on bail being picked up again for a crime hasn’t gone up since the reform. Before and after the reform, just 3 percent of defendants rack up new violent felony charges while out awaiting trial.
For adults, conviction for the misdemeanor offense of criminal trespass to vehicle can range from a few months of supervision to a year behind bars. Prison sentences start at three years for attempted vehicular hijacking or possession of a stolen motor vehicle—these are “class 2” felonies in Illinois that, depending on a person’s prior record, can also come with probation sentences. When people are convicted of any form of vehicular hijacking, though, they’re not eligible for probation. The minimum sentence for a simple vehicular hijacking is four years in prison; for an aggravated vehicular hijacking it’s seven years; if the aggravation involves a firearm, it’s 22 years.
For the less serious of the above offenses, juveniles can face probation sentences, and CPD actually runs its own diversion program for kids arrested for criminal trespass. Ahmad pointed out that “the bulk” of the youth arrested for this misdemeanor are directed to this program rather than to her office for prosecution. But for the more serious charges, kids can be sent to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice to serve time until the age of 21. Juvenile cases can also be transferred to adult court. Though automatic transfers for vehicular hijacking have been limited by state law since 2016, kids as young as 13 can still be transferred to adult court if prosecutors ask for it and juvenile court judges approve. Ahmad assured aldermen that her office does make these asks. Kollmann confirmed this, too. “If there’s evidence that you committed a carjacking, especially with a gun—no, you are not run through a system that is going to downgrade and dismiss your charges frivolously,” she told me.
The fact that the majority of carjacking arrests are for misdemeanor criminal trespass seems to be one of the reasons so many people are incensed and have the impression carjackers are getting off easy. But it’s difficult to catch someone in the act, video of the attack isn’t always available, and witnesses are rarely able to identify suspects. CPD also says it doesn’t engage in high-speed car chases for the safety of officers and the public. So the most typical arrest scenario comes soon after an attack: A stolen vehicle is spotted by or reported to police and the people inside are apprehended. Deenihan told the aldermen that, at that point, the only cause the cops may have for an arrest is criminal trespass.
Unlike with felony charges, which have to be reviewed by prosecutors to make sure the evidence is strong enough before being brought to court, adult misdemeanors are sent directly to court by CPD. These cases fall apart if a witness or the police officer who made the arrest doesn’t show up. Several aldermen asked how often this happens. The State’s Attorney’s office doesn’t keep this data, and CPD still hasn’t provided answers to these questions. Some have implied that the State’s Attorney’s Office is in the habit of downgrading felony vehicle-related arrests to misdemeanors, but the data the office later shared with aldermen suggests this is actually rare. Only 5 percent of cases that started out with possession-of-a-stolen-motor-vehicle charges in 2020, for example, were eventually downgraded to criminal trespass.
When it comes to the felony carjacking charges—for which, according to Deenihan’s presentation, only 178 people were arrested last year—the State’s Attorney’s Office seems to be functioning as expected. In 2020, according to the office, felony carjacking charges for adults were approved 97 percent of the time, and resulted in convictions 93 percent of the time. For juveniles, the State’s Attorney’s Office approved charges 89 percent of the time and convictions resulted in 90 percent of cases.
However, with all this talk of arrests and prosecutions and conviction rates there hasn’t been much room for questions about whether the police are funneling the “right” people into the criminal legal system under the guise of “catching carjackers,” or if cops and prosecutors are even operating constitutionally. Historically, crime waves are accompanied by increased pressure on police to make arrests and prosecutors to land convictions. These circumstances have also been breeding grounds for police overreach, misconduct, torture, wrongful convictions, and rampant violation of constitutional rights. Not to mention increased surveillance and criminalization of young Black and Latinx people, especially in poor neighborhoods.
Kollmann said that in addition to the rhetoric and misinformation around carjacking creating conditions in which law enforcement is more likely to “cut corners,” more of the wrong people could be arrested and charged because of the pandemic. While some point to mask-wearing as additional cover to commit the crime, Kollmann said masks can also be conducive to witness misidentification and increased racial profiling by police.
But what if the cops are right, and what if their arrest data was representative of the sort of people committing carjackings for the reasons they presume? If the spike is being driven by young people—what’s to be done about it?
“What people believe regarding young people is that the ability to send them to adult court or give them lengthy or harsh sentences is at least a deterrent for some kinds of behavior and the science is pretty clear that this isn’t true,” Kollmann said. “Especially for young people, the length and severity of punishment has almost no bearing compared to perceived near-term consequence—meaning effect on reputation or getting caught.” She continued. “Which doesn’t mean arrest, but like someone they don’t want to know about it finds out, like their grandma finds out. That is the biggest way young people are motivated [to refrain from bad behavior], it’s fear of discovery by people that they care about.” The same can be true in reverse—especially when they’re lacking people whose judgement they fear for bad behavior. Kids may be motivated by approval for that same behavior from other people they care about. “Everything that comes after arrest is so remote in the mind of the young person that it really doesn’t enter their calculation.”
As Jalen Kobayashi, 20, a youth mentor and organizer with GoodKids MadCity (which recently published a series of youth video responses to carjacking on its Twitter page) put it, “We have a lot of youth who are very impulsive,” due to a lifetime of trauma and poverty. “Trauma stunts part of your growth and development,” they said. “White kids from the north side don’t grow up seeing their friends and family die and overdose.” Kobayashi, who works with kids who are “involved in the streets,” explained that by the time they’re old enough to commit a crime they have often already gone through too much, including experiencing drug addiction, having friends shot and killed, and having relatives incarcerated. They expressed disappointment in the “elders in our community” who don’t acknowledge this trauma or make enough effort to mentor and support kids but are quick to demonize them for crime.
Kobayashi said some young people may carjack because they’ve “internalized the idea that we have no power and the only way we can take it is by taking it—burning bridges, actively taking people out of cars.” Others, they said, may be carjacking simply because they need to get somewhere or get away from something. “Sometimes it’s just kids out being kids and they’re goofy and they see what’s happened on the news and [get the idea that other people who carjacked] got away with it so we’ll try to do it.” They were highly skeptical that chasing clout on social media or reenacting violent video games was a big motivator, however.
Seventeen-year-old Le’Tiana Roberts, who also organizes and mentors peers through GoodKids MadCity, said that some kids might commit a carjacking and post about it on social media “for attention,” but that the bigger problem is a lack of resources and punitive school policies that force kids to “run to the streets” for guidance and camaraderie. Mentorship is needed but has to be a long-term effort, she said. “If you come to a person who’s broken they’re not gonna really accept you,” she said. “It’s gonna take a minute because at first they’re gonna feel like you’re just out to get them.”
Another GKMC youth mentor and organizer, 18-year-old Dovontay Richardson, echoed these sentiments. “People ain’t got money to get a Lyft or Uber and they don’t have money to get a car,” he said. “If the kids had resources, I don’t think they’d be doing this.” He said that if it wasn’t for access to a basketball court he might have been one of them.
At the city council hearing, Ahmad, who oversees prosecutions in Cook County’s child protection court as well as juvenile delinquency cases, noted that kids charged with crimes are often coming from the poorest neighborhoods, and that she sees a connection between child abuse and neglect and youth crime. “We are lacking as a county in true restorative mental health, education, food security, trauma services for families,” she said. “I believe if we begin infusing services into these families we might see a change in some of this delinquent activity.”
Lanier conveyed the same message when Alderman Napolitano asked how people can be prevented from committing carjackings. Deterring crime “is not always driven by the criminal justice system, it is also driven by how do we reinvest in our communities and provide job opportunities, how do we reinvest in our communities and provide educational opportunities.”
Still, many of the city’s legislators seemed uninterested in tackling crime prevention by offering more resources to the city’s poorest people—and they purported to speak in the name of victims and their desires as they called for the reinstatement of automatic transfers of kids to adult court, longer sentences, fines on parents, and for CPD to start doing car chases again. They were also keen to direct additional funding to a police department that, despite already using 40 percent of the city’s budget and having some of the most sophisticated equipment in the country, doesn’t appear capable of effectively investigating and solving much crime. Aldermen expressed readiness to spend more on helicopters (of which CPD now has two) and social media surveillance, license-plate readers and pod cameras to catch carjackers. “I allow the city to use my TIF money to do everything else,” said 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. “Use my TIF money to buy a helicopter, man.”
A few of the progressive caucus aldermen demanded the city infuse more money into the poorest communities, especially for health and social services. “The only thing I’ve heard in this hearing is about punishment, punishment, punishment,” said 33rd Ward alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. “I would like for us to think about public safety from a very holistic framework that tends to the humanity of people doing this kind of thing.” Seventeenth Ward alderman David Moore, whose south-side community has been among the most affected by this crime wave, said kids’ maturity levels may be far lower than their age might suggest. “Our first response is ‘Lock ’em up.’ We gotta figure this out in terms of punishment that’s equitable,” he said. “It’s disheartening when we see what happened in the Capitol and people get charged with trespassing but then we’re talking about hitting our babies with these major charges.”
Still, these voices were in the minority. Kollmann worries about the types of legislative responses that could come out of the ongoing media circus around the carjackings. Despite the debunking of the “superpredator” theory, which characterized some children as vicious and incapable of remorse, there’s “still this presumption that committing a very serious crime makes you somehow an adult,” she said. “We have all the science that we need to know that’s false.”
There’s scant evidence to support that harsh laws fashioned in response to past crime waves were actually helpful in abating them. “The field of criminology is still trying to solve the mystery of the great homicide decline that happened after the mid-90s,” Kollmann said. “People were sent to prison for longer sentences and in every scientific review the consensus is that while there is some impact of locking people up on whether they can commit [new] offenses, that is such a small percentage and the cost socially and financially is so large that increased, lengthy prison-based punishments really aren’t the cause of crime declines in any significant way.”
“There’s very little strong convincing social science on what drives a steep decline in crime and homicide,” Vargas said. “It’s hard enough to explain a harsh increase in violence and it’s even harder to explain why it drops.” But always, inevitably, the drop comes. And with it, an opportunity for political gain.
The splintered nature of the criminal legal system in Chicago and Cook County makes it easy to pass the blame around when crime goes up and claim credit when it falls. The CPD answers only to itself and the mayor—they get a win when they make an arrest and it doesn’t hurt their stats when prosecutors don’t approve charges. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office can only prosecute people who the cops arrest and against whom the cops collect sufficient evidence. Cook County’s judiciary, which doesn’t answer to anyone but the voters and each other, is bound by state law on the sorts of detention conditions it can impose on those arrested for carjacking—and on the sentences they can dole out to those convicted. The State Police’s jurisdiction is limited to highways. The Cook County Sheriff mostly follows judicial orders on detention and is responsible for minimal policing in the suburbs. This is just how America works. But because so many different agencies with politically independent leadership, siloed bureaucracies, and disconnected data are tasked with responding to crime, they can point the finger at each other when the public deems the overall response to be insufficient. They can manipulate the numbers and take advantage of the gaps in knowledge created by disjointed record keeping.
In a recent working paper, Vargas and colleagues traced the city’s response to four historic homicide waves between the 1920s and 2016. Every time, the police claimed credit for the eventual decline in murders and came out bigger and more powerful, while the city used the waves to “delegitimize Black social movements” and “frame homicide as an individual rather than systemic problem.” Feeble efforts to respond to increased crime through increasing city resources to poor communities pioneered under Mayor Harold Washington were quashed under Richard M. Daley.
Whether it’s the “superpredator” of the 90s or the “bored youth carjacker” of today, “they’re playing a politics of fear that local governments and police departments have played for decades,” backed by shoddy data and anecdotal evidence, Vargas said. Despite their own data to the contrary, much of the messaging from CPD’s top brass has been that carjackings are happening everywhere and randomly, that anyone can be a victim at any time. But unlike prior crime waves, this “politics of fear” is playing out “at a time when CPD has come the closest it’s ever come to seeing its budget decrease.”
Kobayashi said, “Law enforcement is beating the drum to draw attention away from their own failures, like, ‘Hey, hey look at these kids carjacking, you need us!'” And they don’t think that the crime will subside as a result of anything CPD might do about it. “We don’t have police solve things, we have police reacting to things.”
Even when making a statement about the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, CPD superintendent David Brown—who in March tagged other big city police chiefs and agencies while triumphantly tweeting about the arrest of a “13-year-old male juvenile . . . for a pair of vehicular hijackings that took place last July”—was hinting at carjackings. “My greatest fear as the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department has been a deadly encounter between one of our own and a juvenile especially given the recent rise in violent crimes involving juveniles throughout our city,” Brown wrote on April 1, as his communications staff was busy sowing the false story that Toledo was holding a gun when he was shot by Officer Eric Stillman.
In March, the carjacking numbers were already down, closer in line with previous years’ monthly averages. It’s possible that the wave will abate on its own, along with the pandemic. Or maybe the fact that the federal government will start providing every family in America with an income under $150,000 with $250-$300 per month per child—a step that is estimated to help cut childhood poverty in the country by half—will make a difference.
In a city of glaring inequalities like Chicago, Kobayashi said, the bottom line is that poor kids just need more cash and stuff to do. “[We need to be] giving Black kids money and not worrying about what they do with it,” they said. “The youth are saying, ‘We just need more, we don’t have shit. We need more fun things to do.’ You got corner stores, you got churches, you got liquor stores, that’s it . . . we need more to do, more to learn, more to activate our times.”
I didn’t interview any carjackers for this story, but I did find a 2003 study written by three white criminologists who did. In exchange for $50 and the promise of anonymity, a few Black Saint Louis residents between ages 16 and 45 who said they’d committed carjackings shared their motivations. The researchers concluded that while each situation is influenced by the particular people involved and their immediate needs, the decision to commit a carjacking “is activated, mediated, and shaped by participation in urban street culture.”
The study felt dated, with its references to souped-up cars whose drivers were carjacked for “flossing” too hard. The way carjacking scenarios were described hardly seemed to fit the patterns of the crime as it manifests itself in Chicago today. Who’s to say the participants were honest with the researchers about what really drove them, or if they could speak for the carjackers of 2021? There was no differentiation between adult and youth interviewees.
The people accused of committing carjackings become less relatable to “ordinary citizens” as politicians and the media peddle in language that dehumanizes them, as mug shots of arrestees’ tattooed faces flash on TV, as the hoodies, music, and video games in fashion among young people at the moment are blamed. Just as the victims are uniformly presented as innocent people who deserve our sympathy, the “bad guys” perpetrating the crime are equally flat characters. It’s not hard to relate to the victims because no one wants to get carjacked. But where has painting the people committing crimes (very often victims themselves) as less than human gotten us? Perhaps those of us who struggle to imagine the inner worlds of the “emboldened criminals” taking people’s cars at gunpoint also struggle to imagine a life of poverty, abuse, boredom, housing instability, inadequate schools, and fear of random assault at all times. Or we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, especially in a world that sears with its unfairness.
GoodKids MadCity’s name is a riff on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 autobiographical album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The songs are interspersed with skits depicting an evening of friends cruising around Compton in a car, getting drunk and high, chasing girls, burglarizing someone’s house, getting into a shoot-out with some guys from another part of town. The tragedy and fear conjured by the idea of these individual events in isolation is softened by the affable, relatable energy we hear in the rapport between the friends. As a listener riding in the car with them, you can relate to the joy, the bravado, that fun in recklessness that most of us indulged in as kids, especially if we grew up with working or impaired parents, in places where there wasn’t much to do, creating our own adventures. It’s not a “glorification of violence” but an observation about reality. What happened to the kids from the car? One of them ended up dead. Another became a successful rapper. Their individual paths diverged due to the bad luck of a bullet trajectory and the random chance of talent. But the social and economic conditions that create nights like the kind they had in the car are still there. The youngest kids arrested in connection to carjacking last year in Chicago were 10-year-olds from West Englewood. They were born when Rahm Emanuel became mayor, promising to bring new opportunities and resources to their community. We all know how that went. In ten more years will we be blaming the poorest infants born during this pandemic for some new burst of chaos? v