Police turn to technology, stiffer penalties to combat carjacking surge

CHICAGO — Officials unveiled a new strategy to curtail a surge carjackings Sunday, combining cutting-edge technology and stiffer penalties for offenders.

In the first four months of 2018 there have been 243 carjackings in Chicago, already outpacing last year, when the city had the most carjackings in a decade. A recent series of carjackings on the Gold Coast and on the West Side left several victims in its wake, including an 84-year-old man.

In response, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson announced five squad cars equipped with "state-of-the-art" license plate readers are being deployed with the joint federal carjacking task force.

"It sends a clear message to everybody thinking about that, that the U.S. attorney is now on the beat with us, and if you commit a crime like that you’re going to serve the time," Mayor Emanuel said.

A member of CPD's auto theft unit, Officer Chris Moyer said he's had his hands full as carjackings have been "through the roof" this year.

It’s a difficult problem to police, he said, partially because they can’t see it coming. But Officer Moyer said the new technology gives police another set of "eyes" to spot carjackings. Cameras mounted on customized squad cars constantly read license plates as officers drive down the street, checking plates against a database of stolen cars.

"Before this technology, you can’t look at a car and know it’s stolen," Moyer said.

The systems, which cost $25,000 per vehicle, are installed on 40 CPD vehicles already, and police credit them in part for a 100 percent increase in carjacking arrests this year.

While they're designed to make response times quicker and lead to more accuracy, organizations like the ACLU have expressed privacy concerns about the plate recognition systems providing a source of constant surveillance. Officials argue the data collected by the cameras is purged after 30 days.

Supt. Johnson says their strategy combines the technology with strengthening prosecutions, as the U.S. Attorney brings federal charges against carjacking suspects. Among them is a suspect accused in Thursday's carjacking spree, who's now facing federal charges.

"You want to keep committing carjackings? Then we have a message for you. That day is over. We’re going to come get you, we’re going to prosecute you and you will be going far away from Chicago," Supt. Johnson said.

Over 100 new Chicago police officers were also deployed to their districts on Saturday. The 108 recent graduates of the police academy were sent to every district in the city, officials said, with the most officers going to the 2nd District (Wentworth) and the 4th District (South Chicago), which are getting 15 new officers each.