Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday linked the city’s surge in carjackings to the shutdown of schools at the start of the pandemic, drawing swift condemnation from the Chicago Teachers Union.
During a news conference touting the early success of a specialized carjacking task force, Lightfoot claimed minors are largely to blame for the citywide crime trend she said has created “pervasive fear” among residents. In noting that the continued spike in carjacking began in 2020, when the pandemic took hold in Chicago, Lightfoot drew a direct correlation to the start of remote learning.
"Having talked to state’s attorneys who were dealing with these cases in juvenile court and others, a lot of parents went to work during the day thinking their teenagers were logged on for remote learning only to find something else," she told reporters at the headquarters of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
"For many of these kids, some of whom had no prior involvement in the criminal justice system, this was pure boredom," she added. "But we’re way past that point now, and we’ve gotta bend the curve on this issue."
The CTU slammed the mayor, who most recently battled with the union over whether to allow children to return to classrooms during the Omicron surge.
"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 carjackings, which have been growing across the nation," the union wrote. "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."
The union also said it’s "intellectually unsound and politically venal" for the mayor to make such a connection and questioned whether she fought to keep kids in classrooms during the recent COVID-19 spike "because this bogus belief is a crime fighting strategy."
City data shows through March 1, 2020, weeks before students went remote, Chicago had recorded 148 carjackings, a 68% increase compared to 2019’s 88 incidents during that time.
Most other violent crimes were also up significantly by that point in 2020, too. Compared to 2019, all violent crime victimizations were up almost 11%. Specifically, homicides were up 55%, shootings victims were up 36% and robberies victims were up almost 15%.
As Lightfoot and Brown sought to highlight the progress the city has made addressing the carjacking wave, they both said minors have played an outsized role in the spike. Lightfoot specifically said at least half of those arrested in recent carjackings are under 18.
Brown pointed to an 11-year-old charged late last month in a carjacking in Mount Greenwood who he said had previously been arrested repeatedly in recent years on charges including vehicular hijacking, possession of a stolen motor vehicle and criminal trespass to a vehicle. He also noted that bags of key fobs have been found at the homes of young carjacking suspects.
Both Lightfoot and Brown pushed for a response to the crimes that’s not entirely punitive.
“I’m not one who believes, particularly when it comes to juveniles, that you arrest them and lock them up and throw away the key,” Lightfoot said. “That can’t be the answer. It has to be something more.”
And while Lightfoot stressed the need for “accountability,” she said the prosecution of minors has to be coupled with therapy and programming to help intervene and prevent them from reoffending. Without that, Brown acknowledged, the police department won’t be able to substantially decrease the number of carjackings.
“We don’t want to be chasing our tail on this. We’ll have small reductions, but really the big reduction is about a recidivism strategy that works,” he said, pushing for further cooperation with prosecutors.
In addition to announcing that the carjacking task force is now working around the clock, Brown said the number had dropped so far this year. But he also noted that suspects are often being charged with lesser crimes, and he acknowledged that the recent decrease doesn’t bring the number of carjackings near pre-pandemic levels.
The most recent city data shows there were 162 recorded carjackings through Jan. 30, down almost 25% from 215 in 2021. Before the pandemic was in full swing in 2020, the city had seen 72 — up from 48 in 2019.
Brown said this year’s total is up to 177.