How does a media personality wind up on the Chicago Police Vehicular Hijacking Task Force?

[Cook County] sheriff Tom Dart wanted to build an analytics product that would service the task force, so he asked me to work among the interdisciplinary folks in his office — the IT department, the intelligence analysts, the sheriff’s police — and get all those systems to talk to each other. We started the project in earnest in March 2021, right at the time Chicago [Police Department] was launching the task force, and by July 1 we had a full suite of [carjacking] data going back two years. As we built these metrics, I thought of it like a reporter asking questions about an incident: Does the color of the car matter? The year of the car? The trim package? What kind of engines are they interested in? Are they doing it just because they need to get from one place to the other, or in furtherance of another crime? How much are they selling it for? The Chicago Police Department gave us a ton of their data and access to relevant police reports. While that was happening, they were mounting the actual carjacking missions. I said to [sheriff’s department] police chief Leo Schmitz, “Can I go out on some of these missions? I want to see what it’s like.” I’ve been on every mission but one.

What’s the hairiest situation you’ve been in?

We had one case where there was a car on the Ryan heading north. Illinois State Police were behind it and we were behind them. We had just gotten on the expressway at 79th, and at 71st Street this car was driving so erratically, it went into an underpass wall, which threw the entire wheel assembly off and sheared a rim in half. State police saw it first and kind of spread out in a V formation. All of a sudden, this debris from the car started coming right at us. We rolled over it, got disabled, and were stopped in the right-center lane with cars zipping past us on both sides. Then three individuals from the car went running up the 71st Street on-ramp, and the lieutenant I was riding with got out and ran after them. I’m wearing my vest and have my radio, but I’m not sworn yet and not armed, so he’s by himself. And that week we had been doing the physical training piece. Bear crawls and stuff like that. The instructors are literally down in your ear, like in the movies, yelling, “Go get your partner! Go get your partner!” And all I could think of at that moment was, Oh my God, I’ve gotta go get my partner. So I get out of the car, and I’m running up the on-ramp. The helicopters are overhead and I’m talking to them on the radio: “I’m going up.” Now I’m standing on this desolate part of 71st and State Street at 1 o’clock in the morning, and I can’t find my guy. I don’t see anybody or hear anything. It’s a dream-like state. It wasn’t until I got home that I thought, Oh man, that’s something I never thought I would do.

Which models are most likely to get carjacked?

The Toyota Camry is the most hijacked car, and Chevrolet is the No. 1 brand. They want fast stuff. They’ll say to us, “Because we want to outrun you guys.” Of the 3,700 events we’ve cataloged on our data dashboard from January 1, 2020, to now, there are no Teslas. The door handles are flush, so they can’t pull you out of the car. The other piece of it is you have to have driven that car to know how to drive it. It’s got different technology. It’s also incredibly trackable.

Do you have a better handle now on why there’s been such a dramatic increase in carjackings over the past couple of years?

It’s a very easy crime to commit, a very hard crime to prosecute. These guys use all kinds of tricks, like one guy steals the car, then two blocks later, he’s no longer in the car and somebody else is driving. So if we make a quick recovery and bring the victim there: “Is this the guy?” “No, that’s not the guy.” There are the pandemic pieces, too: There are fewer people in the street, so there’s less traffic, which makes it easier to get away, and the conventional wisdom that there’s more lawlessness. Social media is a big driver, especially for juveniles. They’re trying to lure police into a chase, and then they’re on Facebook Live or TikTok while they’re doing it. There’s a whole glory component to this. The older individuals are more likely part of an organized criminal enterprise. We had a car theft ring that was hitting rental agencies and then going out on social media, literally Facebook Marketplace, and selling a $60,000 car for 2,500 bucks. Everybody knows it’s stolen.

What have victims told you about the psychological toll of carjackings?

It is incredibly violating, like a home invasion. Even the least violent of these — where the carjacker points a gun, gets in the car, and takes off — is a horrifying experience that takes an incredible emotional toll. Often people get their cars back; we essentially recover three-quarters of them now, most in workable order and undamaged. But I’ve had victims say to me, “I don’t want the car back.” It could be a beautiful Range Rover. “I don’t want it.”

How can people reduce their chances of being carjacked?

Be aware of your surroundings. If you’re sitting in your car, your lights are on, your foot’s on the brake, and you’re on your phone, that says to a carjacker, “Take my car, please.” Make sure the car looks parked. And when you’re approaching your car, do not carry your keys in your hand. Look around to see if there’s a car that’s stopped in traffic or pulled over to the side. If they like your car, they’re watching you, and they don’t do this by themselves, in general. Approach your car either directly from behind or in front. Directly in front is preferable because in most cases they are going to be coming from behind you. There are no hard and fast rules, but always keep your wits about you.