Chicago is expanding its carjacking task force as residents remain concerned about high violent crime, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and police Superintendent David Brown announced.

Brown said the task force is currently staffed during two out of three watches but will soon be staffed 24 hours a day with officers focused on arresting carjacker.

“In the last year and a half in particular, there’s a very real and pervasive fear of carjacking across our city, our region and our state,” Lightfoot said at a news conference.

Over the past two years, Chicago has experienced major spikes in violent crime. The city recorded more than 800 homicides in 2021, its worst year in at least two decades.

Carjackings in Chicago rose about 135%, to 1,415 in 2020 from 603 in 2019, according to a Tribune review of police information. The 2020 tally was the highest figure recorded here since 2001, when Chicago logged only slightly more with 1,422, the city statistics show.

Chicago also recorded an increase in 2021.

In response, Lightfoot has repeatedly acknowledged that many Chicagoans don’t feel safe, a dynamic that threatens public safety, residents’ mental health and the city’s economy, and she has repeatedly said her administration is working on the problem.

Chicago police Superintendent David Brown speaks alongside Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Jan. 4.

Brown said carjackings are down by 23% so far this year compared with the same time last year. The department has found that half the arrests made in relation to stolen vehicles are teenagers and children under 18, some as young as 11, and many are repeat offenders.

An 11-year-old boy was arrested Jan. 26 by the vehicular carjacking task force after being identified as the person who took a car on the 11000 block of South Harding Avenue in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood on Nov. 19, Brown said.

Officers saw him get out of a stolen Chevrolet Malibu, and the boy was given a felony charge of aggravated vehicular hijacking with a weapon and possession of a stolen vehicle.

Brown then listed off an extensive arrest history, especially for one belonging to an elementary school-aged child. Brown noted arrests starting in 2020, most relating to stolen cars.

“This idea of resources for our young people is real,” Brown said. “It’s critical to our success.”

Brown did not expand on what those resources might be, but Lightfoot added that she doesn’t believe that children should be locked up with the key thrown away.

“That can’t be the answer,” she said. “It has to be something more. But what also is true is that there’s got to be accountability.”

Lightfoot said she has had conversations with the state’s attorney and is reaching out to the public defender in addition to a working group that was created last fall to find ways to provide “meaningful interventions” for these children, who may have challenging personal circumstances.

“It cannot be arrest and release, arrest and release,” she said. “Because we’re not solving any long-term problems by just doing that.”

Lightfoot said the city saw the rise in cases in 2020 and believed there was a correlation between remote learning and carjackings. She said some parents left for work thinking their kid was attending their virtual classes when in reality they were on the streets.

“I asked is there some new market for stolen cars? And unfortunately, that answer was no, that for many of these kids, who some of whom had no prior involvement in the criminal justice system, this was pure boredom,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot’s comments drew almost immediate criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union, which called her remarks “intellectually unsound and politically venal.”

“Every child in our public schools in Chicago deserves an apology from the mayor today, who claimed with zero evidence that there was a correlation between remote learning in 2020 and an increase in car-jackings, which have been growing across the nation,” the union said in a statement.

“To suggest that our students are somehow disproportionately responsible for these crimes is precisely the kind of scapegoating and smear tactics Black and Brown students and adults have had to contend with in any discourse about crime for generations,” said the union, which has repeatedly clashed with Lightfoot over whether there are adequate COVID-19 protections in schools.

Monday’s announcement isn’t the first time city officials have vowed to work on the issue, publicly or privately.

Ald. Greg Mitchell texted Lightfoot in July 2020 about “several car jacking/armed robberies” in Calumet Heights on the South Side. He told her about kids stealing high-end luxury vehicles at gunpoint and using the stolen cars to commit additional carjackings.

“On it! I will call you back myself as soon as I get a break from meetings, but I have been worried about this, consistently asked about it, and was told by CPD that they had a collaborative plan with the burbs,” Lightfoot said in response. “I will make sure this gets renewed focus.”

In January 2021, South Side aldermen partnered with private security to watch gas stations — a program they called “Operation Safe Pump.”

But despite their efforts, crime remains high.

On Monday, Brown said the city wants to reduce carjackings to pre-pandemic levels.

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