Why Do Kids Carjack?

Art: J. Yen

It was 5:20 in the afternoon on Mon. Aug. 28, 2023, the first day of school. Parents and children spilled out of Maury Elementary School, filling the surrounding neighborhood.

A few blocks away on the 300 block of 12th Street NE, a delivery driver pulled up to the curb tailed by a black sedan. The black car suddenly pulled around in front of him into an alley. Out jumped several teens. They ran to the delivery vehicle and tried to force the driver out. When he resisted, they beat him.

On the crowded street, the incident did not go unnoticed. A passerby dropkicked the teen punching the driver, subduing him. Another teen grabbed a golf club out of the black sedan and headed towards the melee on the ground. “Look behind you!” yelled a bystander.

The teen on the ground used the distraction to escape, jumping into the black sedan. He and his compatriots then drove off leaving the delivery driver bruised and shaken.

The entire incident was captured on a bystander’s cell phone.

A few days later, the five teens were apprehended after crashing a stolen black sedan in the wake of another attempted robbery. All five were between 13 and 16 years of age, and now face multiple charges. One of them, a 13-year-old girl, was charged with four counts.

Youth crime dominates the District news and discussions at the DC Council. Kids are committing carjackings, often armed, sometimes in broad daylight.

A July 2021 study of carjackings from 2016 to 2020 found the average age of individual perpetrators at the time of the offense to be 23. Most MPD officers say carjackings are committed by young people aged 20 and younger.

Is youth crime increasing and increasingly violent? Are kids behind the increase in the District’s carjackings? What are their motivations for committing such violent crimes? Let’s begin with an examination of the data.

Youth Crime on The Rise
Public consensus appears to be that youth crime is on the rise. The data, however, presents a murkier picture.

As of late September 2023, violent crime is up 36.4 percent in the District compared to the same time in 2022. In 2023, there were 3,893 violent incidents as opposed to 2,838 in 2022. Robberies, which include carjackings, were up 65 percent. As of Sept. 24, there were 2,532 robberies in the District as opposed to 1,531 at the same point in 2022.

However, since not every crime results in an arrest, it is impossible to know what percentage of robberies were committed by youth.

More youth are being arrested. MPD releases reports every six months. Arrests of youth for crimes increased by 17 percent from January to June 2023 compared to the first half of 2022. In 2023, there were 992 arrests compared to 847 in 2022.

An increasing percentage of youth arrests are for violent offenses. These arrests, for murder, assault with a deadly weapon, rape and robberies increased by seven percent for the first half of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. In 2023, there were 236 arrests compared to 220 in 2022. Many were for robberies, which includes carjacking.

So, what about carjacking specifically?

What About Carjackings?
In the District, carjackings have climbed 350 percent since 2019. As of September 2023, there were 706 incidents. However, police made only 102 arrests. Of those, 65 percent were youth. Nothing is known about the perpetrators in the remaining 604 incidents.

In 2022, police made arrests in roughly 25 percent of reported carjackings. 68 percent of those arrested were youth. In 2021, police made arrests in 34.5 percent of reported carjackings. 67 percent of those arrested were youth. So, from 2021 to 2023, youth made up an average of 66.66 percent of those arrested for carjackings.

Kids make up the majority of those caught for carjacking. Does this mean they also commit the majority of such crimes or is there another explanation?

Bad Driving & Bad Judgement
Of the 70 youth arrested for carjacking in 2023 as of Sept. 25, 43 were aged 15 and 16. Kids that old, as police officers point out, do not know how to drive. This supposition is buttressed by the large number of youth carjackings that end in crashes.

Officers on the street acknowledge that youth are easier to catch than adults. Aside from bad driving, they are often brazen.

“Some of them don’t have the whole criminal mindset; like they’ll do stupid things,” one officer explained, speaking anonymously, “Like they’ll steal a car around the corner and then stop at a 7-11, say ‘Hey, I want something to drink,’ —but [they] stole the car right there.”

So, the high percentage of youth apprehended for carjacking is likely due to their risky behavior. Yet, the question remains. What is it that motivates kids to carjack?

One answer is as old as human adolescence. Stealing a car to joyride is a cheap thrill.

For Thrills
Most of the carjackings are “not done for any motive except just having fun,” said one sergeant, speaking at a public safety walk.

“I mean they’re not stealing cars to sell parts, they’re just stealing cars to steal cars,” the officer added. Most cars, he pointed, are taken from one part of the city and later found parked in another quadrant. 

“A lot of times the kids don’t really understand what they’re doing. I truly believe that,” said one violence interrupter. “They just want to get a car to have a car. It’s just what they do,” he added.

“They don’t understand the traumatizing effects that it has on the person they’re doing it to. And I see that a lot.”

Carjacking is a high-risk activity, what sociologists call “edgework,” high risk activity to escape from social boundaries. It’s a defiant thrill. That is particularly potent for kids in their teenaged years.

Sensation seeking, experts say, is at an all-time high at mid-adolescence. Kids at that age also have difficulty being empathic or contemplating risks and consequences.

A 2023 article in “The Annual Review of Criminology” points out that this is not new. Seventy years ago, the majority of motor vehicle thefts reported each year were the work of young males, stated the study, “many of whom did it for thrills.”

“Youth with its desire to ride in an automobile is the constant and most important single factor in large-scale automobile theft,” wrote authors Bruce Jacobs and Michael Cherbonneau, adding that little has changed in seven decades.

Why not just steal the cars?

The rise in carjackings is directly tied to the improvement of automobile security features, a 2023 study noted.

It is actually faster and simpler to carjack a car than to try to steal it from the curbside. Whereas a car thief used to force a screwdriver in the ignition, newer cars no longer have ignitions at all. Many require the presence of a microchip in a fob to start. 

Contrast this complicated scenario with a carjacking, which experts say takes an average of less a minute from start to finish.

Yet, thrills are not the only motivation. Sometimes, kids just need a free ride.

Screenshot: DC Alerts, Sept. 26.

A Free Ride
“They call them free cars,” said Jawanna Hardy, founder of Guns Down Friday. That is the term that kids use to mean any stolen car. Some are used in other crimes. Others are simply driven overnight to another part of the city and abandoned.

Youth blur the lines between theft and carjackings, as do the adults who work with them. “Cars are so easy to steal,” said one violence interrupter, “and a lot of times, kids, they’re out late and night doing whatever and they just go, ‘Oh, this is an easy take, so I’m going to take this car from this lady.’”

Kids are starting to see stealing cars as an easy form of transportation, concurred one MPD officer who patrols the Navy Yard. Late at night, he is sometimes flagged down by kids who need a ride home. Their parents just never came to get them or they have no money for the bus, he added.

Given that cars are being taken in one District neighborhood and found in another a few hours later, “it appears they’re using these cars like Citi Bikes,” the officer said.

The hashtag “#freecar” is used on a wide variety of social media posts that range from kids summarizing DMV slang to rap videos extolling a violent lifestyle. It’s the name of a popular song, “Free Car Music,” by Southeast DC rapper Yung Threat (feat. Yung Dizzy). Yung Threat is affiliated with rap group the Fox 5 Gang.

Aside from providing free transportation, cars are also a valuable tool to commit other crimes.

Driven to Commit Crimes
A few cars are stolen to sell. For example, an 18-year-old was arrested and charged in six successful and one attempted carjacking after stealing a Mercedes and selling it to an undercover officer at a Florida Avenue garage only 20 minutes later. However, this is rare, say officers on the street.

“It’s not like there’s a bunch of chop shops in DC where they’re taking cars,” one pointed out.

What makes cars valuable, however, is their use as an essential tool in committing other crimes.

The so-called “Kia Challenge” taught social media users how easy it is to steal a Kia or Hyundai with just a USB drive. 1,468 Hyundais and 806 Kias were stolen by mid-July of this year. They accounted more than half of the nearly 4,000 car thefts in the District. Many of those cars are later used in carjackings.

“You’re not going to do it (a robbery) in a car that’s traceable to you,” the Navy Yard officer said, “A lot of these kids are too young to have cars, anyway.”

In August, the US Attorney indicted 14 people ranging in age from 20 to 32 involved in a violent, national conspiracy employing stolen vehicles. The defendants committed multiple carjackings. Then, they used the cars to commit armed robberies of jewelers in cities from Harrisburg, PA to Jacksonville, FL. This is a large example of what is happening on a smaller level in the District.

This past summer, a group of 14-year-old girls were arrested after wrecking a car that they had stolen on Michigan Avenue. The arrest closed 13 open robbery cases, stated the Fifth District.

For many, the roots of carjacking, a self-destructive, criminal youth behavior, lie in the squalor of their circumstances as well as the lack of more constructive, legal outlets for their self-expression.

Desperate Circumstances
Many of the children who are robbing people don’t have much at home, said Ms. Hardy. “You see all sorts of things when you open up those doors.” Situations often lead to behaviors that stem from idle lack of direction to hopelessness spiraling all the way to desperation.

Those who engage in criminal behaviors are not simply “bad kids,” said a violence interrupter. They are products of an environment of scarcity and deprivation in which idle lack of direction can swing to hopelessness and spiral into desperation.

These kids “are just following the same line that everyone else is doing,” he said.

Q: Why [they] wanna live like this? It’s no glory in this shit.

A: It’s a generational curse

–Exchange on DC social media page [Reddit]

There Are No Playgrounds

“They are no playgrounds around here,” Hardy noted ruefully. In some cases, a single parent is caring for many children simultaneously, stretched thin in terms of both attention and money. Kinds end up scrounging for both.

“I just want some money in my pocket,” kids say, according to Hardy.

Schools are where adults check in with kids. However, many of the kids describe them as dilapidated, said Devin Turner, lead pastor of Revolution Church at 4601 Texas Ave. SE. These educational institutions lack the kind of services and programs available at their more affluent counterparts, he pointed out.

The pandemic exacerbated the situation. Children missed critical years of social and emotional development that could have helped them cope with conflict and emotional turmoil, said DC 127 Executive Director Tara Woods. The program at District Church at 3101 16th St. NW works with kids on the verge of placement or already in foster care

“We’ll be seeing those effects for decades,” said Woods.

Unsafe Neighborhoods
DC youth are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetuators. A child is shot an average of between two and three times a week in the District, often accidentally. By far, the bulk of these incidents involve Black boys younger than 15.

In violent areas of the city such as Police Districts 6D and 7D and areas of Southwest, many youth live in fear –as the social media exchange below illustrates.

Q: “Dumb ass shit if u grow up in dc in a hood u are beefing only way to prevent that is to move away kids literally being born into this shit”

A: “If u grow up a hood how can u not? only way is to stay in the house all ur childhood and not make any friends and u still might get shot leaving out ur house smh”

–Social media exchange on the merits of “beefing”

“Beefs” among groups of youth are acted out in the streets, said a youth counselor for Neighbors for Justice (NFJ), who works with kids at risk of becoming justice-involved. He cited this example.

Neighborhood A has a beef with neighborhood B. Perhaps someone from B killed someone from A. Perhaps, a member of A posted to TikTok a rap lyric considered disrespectful to B.

A few days later, a group of kids from A driving by a bus stop see a kid from B waiting there. The kid might have nothing to do with the beef. He might simply be on his way to school or work. It doesn’t matter. They might shoot him just because of where he lives, the NFJ counselor said.

Arguments can turn bad quickly. In late August, a 16-year-old girl stabbed another in a dispute over dipping sauce. In May 2023, a 17-year-old was shot on the Green Line after an argument. In September, a 17-year-old was shot on his way to his job at a sandwich shop after an argument in the parking lot.

Young black men literally will “rep their street and die for their hood,” said Turner. All they have, he said, is their reputation. “We need to educate and train our young people so they understand that their self-worth doesn’t come from what they can take from others,” he said.

In this context, it is easy to see how a kid might consider carrying a weapon, in particular a gun, for protection.

Violence & Guns
Kids have no difficulty getting guns, said Turner. All you need is some money and the Internet. Since 2009, it is simple to order a ‘ghost gun’ right off the Internet and download directions to manufacture the key missing part on a 3-D printer.

Once a kid has a gun, they fall into what NFJ counselor terms “the trap.” Having a gun makes it that much easier to get into a variety of trouble; carjackings — and worse. “It becomes bad,” he said.

Guns allow youth to take what they want, said Pastor Turner. Kids post videos of themselves with firearms. They film themselves inside stolen vehicles.

In sum, youth are not just being influenced by social media; they are influencers. “Their followers just do what they see,” said the NFJ counselor.

“It’s a mentality,” Pastor Turner said. “I wave this little three-pound piece of iron in your face and now, I have total control.”

It is about money, but it is more about power. “Power is better than money, because if I have power I can take your money,” said Pastor Turner.

“They say that the [male] frontal lobe doesn’t fully grow until like, 21,” the pastor added. “You got a lot of guys, they say, “Well, what were you thinking?” —they weren’t thinking,” Turner concludes. “That’s the whole point.”

For the delivery driver and Capitol Hill residents involved in the August melee, the motivations and factors driving the teens to commit such violence are perhaps beside the point. The question for them is one of accountability.

Next month, an examination of what happens to youth arrested for carjacking.