Crime and Courts

MPD Carjacking Task Force: ‘We Need More' Officers as Crimes Soar

According to MPD’s own reporting, D.C. is seeing on average more than one carjacking per day this year

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D.C.’s grim carjacking stats are updated daily online, but they’re no surprise to Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. Valkyrie Barnes.

“It’s a heavy pace,” Barnes told the I-Team recently at the scene of an unsolved carjacking from September 2022. Barnes said “it’s likely” the group of seven suspects has attacked again while MPD works on the case.

“We’re seeing carjackings virtually every day,” Barnes said.

According to MPD’s own reporting, D.C. is seeing on average more than one carjacking per day this year. The latest report on the MPD Carjacking Dashboard shows 82 carjackings in 2023 as of Feb. 22. The department says they’ve closed 14 of the cases. They report just eight arrests. Some suspects are charged in more than one.

While MPD reports overall carjackings are down about 15% in 2023, the number of arrests is also down compared to last year, according to the department’s dashboard.

“It's ridiculous,” Lisa, a recent carjacking victim, told the I-Team in reaction to the low number of arrests.

The suspects who ran up on her with a gun outside her Capitol Hill home in September are still on the loose. News4 agreed not to use her last name.

“Unless there is some kind of deterrent to this, it's not going to stop,” she said.

“I have complete and utter faith in my team. They’re doing absolutely everything they can,” Barnes told the I-Team, although she admitted she could use more officers on the District’s Carjacking Task Force. One investigator recently left the task force for another assignment in the department, leaving her with 11 detectives. Barnes says she “would love another 10 (detectives),” insisting she has work for them right away. MPD says detectives outside the task force investigate some carjacking cases.

The department has repeatedly said in recent months that MPD staffing is at a historic low number of officers and trying to strengthen units from patrol to criminal investigations. The carjacking task force is just one of the units looking for help.

An MPD spokesperson told the I-Team, “Our goal is to deliver quality policing across the District of Columbia, and we will not deviate from that goal based on staffing.”

“We need more (detectives),” Barnes said. “The depth and the pattern cases that we're seeing … there is a connectedness between the offenses that are occurring to our victims. It's just not one offender is doing one carjacking. What we're seeing is that the same vehicle is being used in a number of offenses.

In Lisa’s case from September, she said an MPD detective told her the department is still waiting on fingerprint analysis from the scene of the crime. It’s been five months.

“(It) could be more," Barnes admitted. “No one (has time to wait). Not even our victims."

Issues at the D.C. crime lab have been well reported as have delays on evidence testing. The lab is still trying to regain its accreditation. The D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences told the I-Team outsourcing of some evidence is speeding up analysis and carjacking cases are turned around in an average of 66 days, although that is not what Lisa and Barnes experienced.

Barnes said evidence delay is just one of the frustrations her team is up against as D.C. faces a serious and violent rash of carjackings. At court, Barnes said it feels like her detectives are facing higher standards. Suspects are still wearing masks, including surgical masks. They move fast and are most often armed with a gun.

In her case, Lisa told the I-Team suspects “came after me and put the gun to my head while I was on the ground and kept screaming at me.” She admits all she focused on was the gun and couldn’t get a good look at the suspect’s face until after she saw surveillance video from a neighbor’s camera.

Barnes says those understandably fraught moments make it hard for her team to make cases without good suspect identifications. Video – even hours of surveillance video – oftentimes is not enough said Barnes, who called it “absolutely not fair” to victims.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes adults accused in the District, told the I-Team, “While police only need probable cause for an arrest, a successful prosecution requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

D.C. is not alone in seeing unsolved carjackings. However, not every department is as transparent as MPD when it comes to listing statistics.

An I-Team review found a yearly increase in some of our largest jurisdictions each year since 2020. Last year Montgomery County reported 79 carjackings, nearly twice as many as in 2020 when the county reported 40. As of mid-February, Montgomery County reported three times as many as that time last year.

A Prince George’s County police spokesperson told the I-Team there were 263 cases investigated in 2020. That number jumped to 480 last year.

In Fairfax County, a Freedom of Information Act request shows 68 carjackings since 2020.

Investigative Reporter Ted Oberg shares four ways to protect oneself from carjackings.

Sgt. Barnes suggested four ways to avoid becoming a carjacking victim:

  1. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right about your parking spot or where you are walking, get out of there.
  2. Park in a well-lit spot.
  3. Don’t linger in your car scrolling on your phone. Barnes said the light from the device could attract a suspect who otherwise may not have seen you.
  4. And if you are approached by someone demanding your car, give it up. Nearly 65% of D.C. carjackings this year involved a gun. It is not worth finding out if someone demanding your car has one, Barnes said.

In Lisa’s case, up on Capitol Hill, it wasn't that late and it wasn't a dark street. In the end, her neighbor's scream appeared to scare the attackers off and Lisa's screams alerted other neighbors to call 911. Police were there within minutes.

“I've been here for 20 years, and I have never felt more afraid,” Lisa said.

In the months since, her neighbors formed a What’s App group. If anyone on the street wants company as they walk to their door from the car, Lisa said a message posted in the group has always brought a neighbor out for help.

Reported by Ted Oberg, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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