Auto thefts, carjackings in major U.S. cities spike, new report finds
Motor vehicle thefts across 30 major cities have increased by 59% from 2019 to 2022, spiking amid the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new analysis of crime trends released Thursday by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).
The data also showed motor vehicle theft more than doubled in eight of the 30 cities surveyed amid the pandemic. It tripled in Memphis and Chicago.
“For decades, motor vehicle thefts had been plummeting. Certainly from the early ’90s through the beginning of the pandemic, they were way down,” said Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and author of the CCJ study. “That’s because, quite simply, it became more and more difficult to steal a car. Newer model cars were accompanied by electronic ignition and locking systems, plus GPS systems.”
But, according to Rosenfeld, that downward trend began reversing “right at the start” of the pandemic.
“That has persisted through the end of 2022 with no sign of letting up,” he added.
The number of motor vehicle thefts was a combined 37,560 higher across 30 cities in 2022 than the year before, according to the CCJ report.
The latest deep dive into national crime trends drew on data from 35 cities nationwide, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The new study from CCJ examined monthly rates for 10 violent, property, and drug offenses, though not every city reported data on all crimes. In the case of homicides, 27 cities published numbers publicly.
Here’s a breakdown of the new report’s top takeaways.
Carjackings increased by 29% amid the pandemic
In 2020, Americans suffered $7.4 billion in losses due to motor vehicle theft, according to the FBI. According to the CCJ, “added to these direct costs are the costs of other crimes, such as robberies, burglaries, and drive-by shootings, that motor vehicle thefts help to facilitate.”
While motor vehicle thefts decreased dramatically from a rate of 659 per 100,000 population in 1991, to 246 per 100,000 in 2020, the onset of the pandemic saw a quick reversal.
“For decades, motor vehicle theft rates had been plummeting. Motor vehicle death rates had been plummeting,” said Rosenfeld. “Certainly from the early 1990s through the beginning of the pandemic, they were way down.”
What changed? Rosenfeld said he does not have a “good, definitive answer” to that question yet, but calls the uptick “emblematic of contemporary urban crime.”
According to the report, the number of carjackings — defined as theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle by force or threat — increased from 3,000 in 2020 to 3,713 in 2022 across seven cities: Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, Norfolk and San Francisco.
Data from the city of Chicago suggest that most citywide carjackers are young adults, although the share of carjackings by juveniles more than doubled, from 18% to 41%, between 2016 and 2021.
Rosenberg also noted that “while carjacking is technically a form of robbery, robbery rates fell during the pandemic while carjacking increased.”
“Two distinct increases in vehicle theft are discernible since early 2020,” the report detailed, “an initial rise at the beginning of the pandemic and a much sharper increase in the spring of 2022.”
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, there were more than 936,000 vehicle thefts in 2021, a 27% increase since 2019. Insurance claims for catalytic converter theft — which is defined as theft of a part of a motor vehicle — increased by a staggering 1,215% from 2019 to 2021.
Analysts like Rosenberg stressed that “recent increases in property crime and carjacking require immediate action from law enforcement and policymakers.”
Homicides declined 4% in 2022, but remain historically high
Homicides in major American cities ticked down by 4% in 2022, a decrease of 242 incidents across the 27 American cities publishing data for this crime. But the murder rate remained 34% higher than it was in 2019, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the overall murder rate sank nationwide, the murder rate in Raleigh, North Carolina, surged 48%, while Seattle saw a 14% increase and Atlanta a 10% increase.
The city of Raleigh went from 33 homicides in 2021 to 49 in 2022, a statistical change Rosenberg calls “meaningful.”
The number of homicides rose by 37% in the cities studied by CCJ between 2019 and 2020.
Rosenfeld said that declining confidence in law enforcement following widespread protests in the summer of 2020 meant some Americans were “less likely to cooperate with the police when they are trying to investigate serious crimes, less likely to report crimes to the police, and more likely to take matters into their own hands.”
In 2022, the drop in homicides, aggravated assaults and gun assaults “could reflect some easing of the stress and dislocations associated with the pandemic, as well as decreases in the widespread social unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder,” according to the report. “Overall, however, the rates of these offenses remain substantially higher than prior to the pandemic. Fatal and nonfatal assaults continue to warrant serious attention from policymakers.”
In Richmond, homicide rates plummeted 40%, while New York City experienced a more modest drop of nearly 12% in the citywide homicide rate.
Domestic violence incidents dropped slightly in a dozen major cities
Incidents of domestic violence decreased by nearly 5% in 2022, with 4,067 fewer domestic violence incidents reported.
Yet according to CCJ: “These results should be viewed with caution, however, because they are based on only 11 cities for which domestic violence data were available,” underscoring the scarcity of reporting on such incidents.
A previous systematic review of domestic violence by CCJ documented an 8.1% increase in incidents after cities and states imposed pandemic-related lockdown orders in the spring of 2020. Authors noted that “COVID-19 left parents and children confined to their homes, cut off from friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others capable of reporting signs of abuse and violence and intervening to help potential victims escape violent situations.”
These and other dynamics may result in a variety of reporting challenges, experts warn.
“At least earlier during the pandemic when victims were likely to be sequestered in their homes with offenders, they may not have been able to contact the police,” Rosenfeld said. “But based on the police data, we see a continuing decline in domestic violence.”
Robberies increase, particularly in non-residential areas
Robberies and larcenies — thefts unaccompanied by force or breaking and entering — increased in 2022 by 5.5% and 8% nationwide, respectively, across 31 major cities, the report found.
While residential burglaries dropped by 2%, nonresidential burglaries shot up by 26,960 — an 11% increase and a statistical phenomenon experts believe may be connected to the reopening of businesses.
“The average monthly robbery rate in the 31 cities with available data was lower during the first two years of the pandemic than during the preceding two years,” according to the report.
Robberies began to increase toward the latter half of 2021. By December 2022, there were 4,143 more robberies in the cities studied by CCJ, a 5.5% increase from 2021. Still, the number of robberies in 2022 remained 4% lower than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. By the same measure, nonresidential burglaries remained nearly 8% lower in 2022.
What it all means: Social unrest, COVID-19 and what’s to come
A “return to somewhat normal living conditions,” is one possible explanation for the recent uptick in crimes committed to acquire money or property from a victim, according to the CCJ.
“Opportunities for retail theft have increased as shops have reopened,” the report noted. “More people on the street provides more targets for street robbers.”
Another factor is the emergence of “destabilizing economic conditions,” including inflation-driven price hikes in food, fuel, and housing prices that first materialized in the final months of 2021, and accelerated sharply during 2022.
As for homicides and other violent crimes outside of robbery, “I don’t have a crystal ball,” Rosenfeld conceded. “But I would say the overall decline, though modest, the downward trend we’re seeing in 2022, suggests to me that we’re going to continue to see declines in the coming year.”
What exactly is to come in 2023? Experts like Rosenfeld acknowledge that history — and 2020 in particular — prove trendlines are highly susceptible to national phenomena.
“Barring another controversial incident akin to George Floyd — police use force that goes viral and spurs unrest — and barring a huge uptick in COVID that brings back lock downs, I would expect these trends to continue downward relatively modestly. That’s my best guess about 2023. But it’s a guess.”
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