Why has a wave of carjackings hit the Twin Cities?

A burnt car is parked on street.
A police officer runs by a burnt car parked near a site where a carjacking suspect struck pedestrians in front of a bakery in Minneapolis in September 2019. A wave of carjackings has hit the Twin Cities and many other parts of the country, and no one is entirely sure why.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii | Star Tribune via AP 2019

Updated: 4:31 p.m.

You’ve probably seen the headlines: “Twin Cities area sees surge in carjackings, putting drivers on edge” or “‘Staggering’ surge in violent carjackings continues across Minneapolis.”

According to the Star Tribune, carjackings in Minneapolis went up 537 percent from November 2019 to November 2020 — and were up another 40 percent from the first 10 months of 2020 to the first 10 months of 2021.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office on Tuesday announced that it’s dedicating more resources to prosecuting carjacking cases. County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a statement that two attorneys will focus on carjackings — one for adults, the other for juvenile offender cases, adding that carjackings in the county have increased significantly over the last few years. The office also designated an advocate who will help carjacking victims.

The county attorney's office said as of this week there have been 138 referrals of carjacking cases to them this year and many of the crimes are being committed in broad daylight. County prosecutors have filed charges in 75 percent of those cases.

A wave has hit the Twin Cities, as it has many other cities across the country — that much is clear. But there’s a big question no one has been able to answer: Why? Criminologists say there’s a lack of historical data on the subject, and few have yet to look closely at recent data.

Stephanie Kollman is one of the few that have. She’s the policy director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago, which is also experiencing a spike in carjackings.

Kollmann examined Chicago Police Department data for clues on what could be driving the surge as part of a report in the Chicago Reader, and shared with host Cathy Wurzer what Minnesotans can glean from her findings.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation or read an edited transcript below.

Who’s committing the carjackings?

Kollmann doesn’t buy the dominant media narrative that minors are committing the vast majority of carjackings. The majority of people arrested by police for carjackings are minors, but this is not a useful data point, Kollmann explained, as police solve and make arrests in so few carjacking cases.

In Minneapolis, the data suggest that police are making arrests in as few as 10 to 15 percent of all reported carjackings, which is a small sample size, Kollmann said.

Minors may be overrepresented in carjacking arrest numbers because they are more easily arrested than other perpetrators due to lack of planning, operating in large groups — which can also inflate arrest numbers — and inexperience with driving, Kollmann said.

Would more police curb carjackings?

As controversy over police presence has exploded in the Twin Cities and local police departments have shrunk, some have pointed to a lack of police presence as a factor that could be encouraging carjackers. According to Kollmann, this claim isn’t borne out by research.

“There really isn’t evidence to show that increasing the proportion of police is going to drive down carjacking or other related offenses,” Kollmann said.

Chicago has the highest per capita police presence of all major cities in the U.S., and a wave of carjackings has still hit the city, Kollmann added.

What could be driving this wave of carjackings?

Why commit a carjacking instead of stealing a car when no one’s around, which seems less risky?

First, Kollmann said, advances in anti-theft technology mean that car thieves must have access to both the car and the key fob, which often is held by the owner of the car. This has transformed some car thefts from property crimes to person-based offenses.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also likely a factor.

While robberies have increased during the pandemic, burglaries have decreased, Kollmann pointed out. This may be because people have been spending more time at home and businesses have reduced hours and stock, discouraging property crime and funneling that activity toward — again — person-based robberies like carjackings.

The pandemic has also created more economic need and social disconnection, which could be driving crime as well, Kollmann said.

Why is the data on carjackings so limited?

Kollmann said it’s been difficult for researchers to obtain useful data on carjackings. Insurance companies have strong business interests that cause them to guard their data, and police departments may be embarrassed to disclose how few carjackings they are solving. Police departments may also be politically motivated to only share data that make a case for police budget increases.

Are there precautions I can take to protect myself?

To reduce your chances of becoming a victim of carjacking, you can change your behaviors to increase your awareness of your surroundings, Kollmann said. For example, Kollmann suggested listeners avoid lingering in stationary cars.

The Richfield Police Department has also released a list of safety recommendations.

One precaution that Kollmann recommended listeners avoid? Carrying a gun. Kollmann said the research is clear that having a firearm in a self-defense situation is unlikely to prevent violent crime — and can actually escalate a confrontation, putting your safety at risk.

MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson contributed to this story.

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