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Carjackings in Philly are on a record pace. Officials aren’t sure why

Police at the scene of a January 2022 carjacking at Cornwall and H Streets in Philadelphia, where a pizza delivery man shot an alleged carjacker. (Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

A pizza delivery driver shot an attempted carjacker in Kensington last Thursday, leaving the man in critical condition.

A carjacking at a Cherry Hill car dealership on Monday led to a wild, high-speed police chase through Philadelphia.

And on Wednesday, police said, an officer fired a shot toward a teenage carjacking suspect in South Philadelphia.

As the city has been in the midst of an unprecedented rise in gun crime over the past two years, carjackings have also been on a startling — and largely unexplained — rise, both in Philadelphia and across the nation.

Already this year, police say there have been 140 carjackings in the city — double the year-to-date total from 2021, and seven times the pace reported at the beginning of 2020.

The total number of carjackings last year — 840 — was by far the highest annual total since at least 2017, police statistics show.

An Inquirer analysis of 2022 carjackings shows that the crime has touched many corners of the city: Southwest Philadelphia, Old City, Germantown, Bella Vista, North Philadelphia, Rhawnhurst, and more.

In December, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon was carjacked in broad daylight at FDR Park, a crime that attracted national attention and led to the arrest of several teens found in Scanlon’s SUV outside a shopping center in Newark, Del.

And last month, a 60-year-old grandfather shot a 16-year-old in the legs after police said the teen tried to shoot the man and steal his Pontiac in West Mount Airy.

“This is like the new way of stealing a car, and it’s become very dangerous,” said Chief Inspector Frank Vanore.

Philadelphia is hardly alone in experiencing an unusual surge in the crime. Although it’s not tracked by all police departments nationally, cities including Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Minneapolis have all reported skyrocketing numbers of carjackings in recent months.

Officials have offered varying explanations: Young people taking joyrides. Cars being targeted for parts. The Chicago Sun-Times quoted one anonymous carjacker saying vehicles were sometimes stolen and then used in other crimes, including drive-by shootings.

Motive aside, the dramatic rise in carjackings has come as gun sales have exploded over the past two years.

And Vanore pointed out that many new cars require a key fob to drive. While in the past, car thieves could target vehicles that were parked or unattended, he said, they now typically have to confront a driver and steal the car’s keys in order to drive away.

Arrest rates in carjackings are generally low, making it difficult to present any hypothesis with certainty. In Philadelphia, just 14 of 120 carjackings in January so far have led to criminal charges, according to an Inquirer analysis of police data and court records (the analysis cannot account for any cases charged in juvenile court, where prosecutions are largely sealed).

“We know very little about the who and why of most carjackings in Philly since so few result in arrest,” the District Attorney’s Office said in a statement last month.

Vanore said police here have nonetheless examined the issue, and found some commonalities among incidents. Many victims have been delivery drivers, he said, or people driving for Uber or Lyft. Sometimes, people are targeted while sitting in their cars on the street, in a parking lot, or at a gas station.

Many of the stolen cars are ultimately recovered, Vanore said, and there’s no indication that a specific type, such as high-end models, are being targeted. And although police believe some suspects are committing carjackings more than once, he said, “I wouldn’t say it’s one big syndicate” driving the spike.

Police have been frequently publishing messages on social media about the issue, instructing people to avoid idling in cars, monitor their surroundings when getting in and out, and not fight back if confronted.

Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said at a news conference last month that the department was taking the rise seriously, saying: “I don’t want anyone for any minute to begin to normalize this.”

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