Carjackings appear to be rising again in Arlington and across the D.C. area.
An uptick between 2019 and 2020 spurred Arlington County Police Department to focus prevention efforts on robbery, burglary and destruction of property incidents. Increased enforcement in 2021 resulted in fewer carjackings, after ACPD made two significant carjacking arrests, per ACPD’s 2021 annual report.
“The combination of the collaboration and the education and proactive work that ACPD did reduce the carjackings and then reduced the stealing of cars in general,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who participated in a regional effort to crack down on carjackings during that time. “With that reduction, less collaboration was needed, but we are working together to make sure that we’re doing the same coordination as before with other jurisdictions.”
But now the crime — in which a person steals a victim’s car by force, threat or intimidation — seems to be ticking up again, with five carjackings in January 2023 compared to zero carjackings in January 2022 and 14 throughout the 2022 calendar year, according to stats provided by ACPD.
Meanwhile, across the river in D.C., one Arlingtonian was carjacked near Union Station and another resident’s Rolls Royce was stolen near Logan Circle, according to police reports.
Dehghani-Tafti said the social science data shows the certainty of being caught is the strongest deterrent from people committing crimes, but deterrence can be harder with carjacking.
“These can be hard crimes to solve because people get away so fast and cars change hands so quickly, they take a lot of collaboration and coordination and proactive action,” she said.
Law enforcement and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney say they’re devoting more resources to combat these crimes.
ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage says the department “continues to deploy increased police resources, to include both visible and non-visible assets, in Crystal City and the surrounding neighborhoods to address this crime trend.”
“The Arlington County Police Department remains a member of the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force which coordinates on offenses such as carjackings,” she said. “As part of our ongoing investigative efforts into these incidents, detectives are working collaboratively with our regional law enforcement partners to share information, identify trends, apprehend suspects and hold them accountable for their actions.”
Dehghani-Tafti, meanwhile, is meeting with a division of Virginia State Police on vehicle thefts, generally.
Two units in the VSP Fairfax Division are “partnering to take a more concentrated and analytical look at vehicle thefts within the Northern Virginia region,” state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. “This is not uncommon for state police to do, as we consistently look for ways to address any crime patterns that develop and identify ways to strategically address and resolve them.”
Of the five reported carjackings last month in Arlington, four were in the Crystal City and Pentagon City areas — where many such incidents were concentrated during the last spree — and three involved BMWs.
“In recent cases, carjacking suspects have generally approached victims as they were inside their idling parked vehicles, brandished a firearm and demanded the victim’s keys and property,” per an Arlington police press release, sent in response to the uptick. “In some cases, the suspects approach the victim by pulling alongside them in a vehicle, which is later determined to be stolen. Reported incidents in Arlington have generally involved multiple suspects.”
While some are threatened with guns, other victims are attacked when they exit their cars.
On Jan. 27, a Columbia Pike resident was exiting his car near Union Station in D.C. to let out an Uber customer when he was attacked and the attacker drove away in his car. The victim and another driver idling behind him chased the alleged carjacker for nearly a mile. Stuck behind a dump truck, the suspect reversed the stolen car and hit the pursuing car. The duo apprehended the suspect but ultimately let go, citing fear for their safety and a growing crowd, according to a Metropolitan Police Department incident report.
The car was later returned to the owner.
Arlington police issued the following safety tips for residents in response to the recent spate of carjackings.
- When inside your vehicle, keep your doors locked and windows up
- Exit your vehicle and continue to your destination promptly after parking
- Be aware of your surroundings when entering and exiting your vehicle
- Limit your use of devices that may distract you, such as cell phones and headphones
- Don’t leave items unattended or visible in your vehicle
One woman’s story
Some two-and-a-half years ago, then-Alexandria resident Lauren Brown was similarly attacked while waiting to turn left onto S. Glebe Road near the Harris Teeter in Potomac Yard. She told ARLnow her experience as a cautionary tale.
A group of 18-year-olds in a stolen car hit Brown. After pleading with her not to call the police — with whom she was already on the phone — they drove away. They returned, and one occupant hit her while the other got in her car and they drove away.
“It’s a really crazy thing what adrenaline does to your body,” she said. “I didn’t feel [the injury] until a few days later.”
Police later arrived and assured her that the carjackers won’t harm her anymore and that she “looked fine, versus the first person they carjacked.”
Her crashed car was later found in D.C. but by then, the 18-year-olds had led police on a chase through Maryland and Virginia in another car. She got her phone, wallet and keys back two days later, but her car was significantly damaged.
“Look at your insurance, see what your coverages are, know how much your car is worth and what your insurance will pay for it,” she said. “Get gap insurance.”
Afterward, she went to counseling, got short-term disability, bought a new car and moved to suburban Maryland, but she wonders how other victims might fare.
“It was hard for me and I had the support of my job, my family, my friends,” she said. “How many people have those options?”
Carjackings carry a minimum sentence of 15 years and up to life in prison, according to state statute. Whether that sentence is served in prison or suspended, with a probationary period ordered, depends on the defendant’s degree of culpability, ability to comprehend their involvement, age and cooperation.
In Brown’s carjacking, two of the 18-year-olds received a 15-year sentence, all of which was suspended, with five years of probation. A third convicted carjacker received a 20-year sentence, of which five years were suspended, per court records. She said some were ordered to go through the Youth Offender Program, where young adults in prison learn discipline and practical skills.
Brown said as an African American woman, she doesn’t want to see Black people incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates, but she also feels the prosecutor didn’t consider her sentencing suggestion when she was asked for her input. She said she suggested 5-10 years in prison, but a lower sentence seemed like a foregone conclusion.
“I wanted the guy who punched me to do a domestic violence class,” she said. “I wouldn’t want him to go through life thinking he could hit people, and there was not even an apology — nothing. ‘I just want to get out of here,’ that’s all he was saying. It was a mess.”
Dehghani-Tafti said prosecutors are statutorily obligated to ask victims for their input on an appropriate sentence, but she acknowledged this doesn’t always make them feel better.
“It’s not lost on me that this is incredibly traumatic for the victim and they, rightly so, are in the middle of their own case while we’re looking the universe of things,” she said. “There are times when the tools we have are nowhere near adequate and then times when the tools we have are very coarse and blunt and, at the end of the day, don’t really help the healing of victims.”
Alan Henney contributed to this report
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