CLEVELAND, Ohio – Carjackings are a growing threat in Cleveland, despite dangerous crimes offer little to gain for the armed thieves, mostly young, who commit them, experts say.
The threat – punctuated by the New Year’s car hijacking and the fatal shooting of Cleveland cop Shane Bartek – has grown exponentially over the past two years. The rise coincides with the coronavirus pandemic that has taken children away from school, extracurricular activities and social services, experts said.
Car hijackings increased last year in Cleveland, reflecting a trend seen in other U.S. cities, including Oakland, Minneapolis and Chicago. Cleveland recorded 433 car hijackings last year, an increase of about 22% from 355 in 2020 and a 52% increase from 285 in 2019.
Experts said the crime was somewhat “irrational” and rarely brought in anything substantial to car thieves. For this reason, it makes sense that most of those accused of carjacking are younger, said Scott Decker, a former Arizona State University criminal justice professor and author of several books and studies on crime.
“At the best of times, teens aren’t particularly careful about what they’re doing, whether they’re criminals or not,” he said. “They are not very rational criminals in terms of reducing the chances of being caught or increasing the gain – that usual calculation we think of with offenders. But in the case of the 14 or 15 year olds, they weren’t dealing with rational people.
In recent days, officials have said they are placing more emphasis on how to deal with the rising number of young car thieves. New Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb told cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer violent crime was high on his priority list, while Cuyahoga County District Attorney Michael O’Malley said earlier this week that car pirates had “declared war” on the city.
“If this wave of violent auto thief crimes is not stopped, it will permanently affect the viability of residents to live in this county,” Cuyahoga County District Attorney Michael O’Malley said. “People need to feel safe in their daily activities. And this wave of car hijackings is destroying people’s confidence in the safety of their neighborhood.
Experts say the surge in carjackings – typically involving young people, from the age of 14 – may be the result of the damaging effect of the coronavirus pandemic on adolescents. Psychological, environmental, societal and financial factors all come into play with youth crime, said Justin Ramsdell, professor of forensic psychology at George Mason University.
During the pandemic, in-person classes and extracurricular activities were canceled or changed. Access to other social services has also been severely limited or unavailable.
Additionally, teens may turn to carjacking because other types of crime are more difficult to commit during the pandemic. For example, burglaries have become more difficult because so many people are working from home, Ramsdell said.
“It takes away other criminal activities that are perhaps less risky and less violent, which will prevent some people from doing it.” But it’s going to push another group to do something that’s essentially more violent, ”Ramsdell said. “This is a bunch of people who have more free time and less structure at a point in their development when you need more structure and more activity to keep you on the right path. “
Carjackers usually don’t get anything out of it.
Christopher Herrmann, a former New York Police Department crime analyst and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said people typically do the hijacking for six reasons: They want to drive somewhere, but don’t have to. no way to get there; bike rides; commit another crime; for popularity or “street cred”; to sell parts; or for the shipment of stolen cars abroad.
The latter two, he said, are rarer because it takes a level of sophistication not found in many carjackers. At the end of the day, you don’t gain much from a hijacking, Herrmann said.
In a home burglary, someone could steal a computer or phone and sell it. But keeping stolen cars safe from getting caught is exponentially more difficult, Decker said.
Some use the stolen cars to drive undetected in areas where rivals live. Others do and post photos on social media for attention, Decker said.
“It’s usually not for profit as cars are often found abandoned or wrecked on the same day and sometimes within an hour or two,” Decker said. “So it’s a strange crime in that sense. “
Leniency in juvenile courts leads to more carjackings, prosecutor says
Many of the suspected auto thieves indicted by O’Malley’s office have criminal histories that include at least one previous violent felony case, he said.
O’Malley believes part of the problem lies with some juvenile court judges and magistrates. He said they often give light sentences to teens convicted of robbery or release teens charged and awaiting trial in carjacking cases.
Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court spokesman Benjamin Wilson said in a statement that due to the rise in car hijackings, judges were working with the prosecutor’s office and staff at the juvenile detention center. to “re-examine” the criteria determining the people accommodated in the center.
“This collaborative effort is to develop a plan to ensure that cases where young people are identified as being involved in carjacking are screened for potential admission to the detention center to ensure the safety of the public,” he said. Wilson’s statement said.
O’Malley cited several examples of teenagers who committed more violent crimes after being released, including the 18-year-old woman accused of shooting Bartek. Tamara McLoyd had previously pleaded guilty to several counts in Lorain County Juvenile Court following an armed robbery. She was sentenced on October 28 to five years of probation.
Four days later, McLoyd is charged with robbing a Cleveland pizza place at gunpoint. A month later, she is accused of shooting Bartek.
O’Malley cited several other recent examples:
- In December, a group committed four armed carjackings in Little Italy, including one that resulted in the shooting of a 22-year-old woman, over a nine-day period. A 14-year-old boy arrested in connection with the Little Italy thefts and shootings also had a previous burglary conviction in 2019 and was sentenced by Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court to two years probation. He was then charged and convicted of auto theft and breaking into a car.
- In another recent case, a group accused of hijacking a nurse on December 10 outside the Lutheran Hospital in Cleveland is linked to a home burglary in Parma. A 17-year-old boy indicted in the case was also charged with an armed robbery in October in which he attacked a woman on West 26th Street and Detroit Avenue in Cleveland.
- In November, two teenagers hijacked a woman at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and strangled her before throwing her out of the car. A 14-year-old boy accused of being one of the car thieves had been sentenced to probation a month earlier for an armed robbery in June at a gas station in Cleveland.
- And in March, a 14-year-old boy was part of a group accused of more than 30 car hijackings over several months in Cuyahoga County. The boy had been released from house arrest under GPS surveillance as he faced another charge of car hijacking, and assisted in several other car hijackings, according to court documents.
On Monday, a new group emerged. Three teenagers, including a 15-year-old boy, and an adult have been arrested in three armed robberies that occurred in three hours in Cleveland. In one incident, a woman who cannot use one of her arms due to a previous accident was dragged down her driveway as she clung to the stolen car, according to police reports.
Rehabilitation vs punishment
O’Malley said rehabilitation should be central to juvenile court affairs, but public safety should come into play when a teenager commits violent offenses with a gun.
Juvenile courts are set up to promote rehabilitation and not to punish offenders, as in adult courts. Research shows that children are better suited to rehabilitation and, if caught early in life rather than later, can lead crime-free lives.
Juvenile courts here and across the country have limited the number of young people in detention to avoid an outbreak of coronavirus cases. Those who remain in the detention center, however, have less access to in-person visits from family members and less access to school or other programs.
Ramsdell said it was important, but difficult, for judges to balance the need to rehabilitate minors with protection of the public.
“The problem is, when they’re released, you send them back to the same environment,” Ramsdell said. “What’s difficult with minors is that the parents control the environment, so it’s impossible at some level to treat the child without treating the parents. You can’t expect incredible gains in treatment if you can’t change the environment. When these juvenile systems return them, they return them to the same environment that caused this problem in the first place. It’s just another way the coronavirus has made the situation worse. “
What can be done?
Herrman said that because carjackings can be unpredictable, they are difficult to deter by police.
He said some police tactics have worked in other cities, including Chicago, where police have established a hijacking response task force. He also said that increasing the presence of patrollers in some areas targeted by car hackers can also help.
Decker said the use of surveillance cameras – those in a permanent location, which Cleveland has in certain areas, and mobile cameras – can be used to catch and deter car hackers.
He said cars made with GPS tracking technology were also helping.
“In the end, technology will likely be a big part of the solution,” Decker said.