Vehicles are seen driving in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

Whether as a result of the pandemic or merely a coincidence, police data indicates that carjacking incidents have increased considerably since the onset of COVID-19.

“I don’t know if we can completely explain why,” said Commander Paul Kane of the Oak Park Police Department. “This is a nationwide phenomenon and definitely a Chicago-greater-area problem.”

 In Oak Park, as of Oct. 26, there have been 22 carjacking incidents this year, an increase of 83 percent compared to 2019, when the village had a total of 12. Oak Park had 16 vehicular hijackings in 2020, a 33 percent increase from the previous year.

Oak Park has also had four attempted vehicular hijackings in Oak Park this year. Three attempts occurred within the same weekend — Oct. 15-17.

The phenomenon is also hitting River Forest, on a smaller scale. The village has had two vehicular hijackings this year as of Oct. 26, according to River Forest Police Chief James O’Shea. Last year they had a total of three. No hijackings occurred in 2019. Both of this year’s River Forest carjacking incidents were aggravated, meaning the carjacker had a weapon; only one was aggravated in 2020.

The majority of carjacking instances in Oak Park have been aggravated. Of the reported vehicular hijackings this year, 17 were aggravated. Whereas there were nine and seven aggravated instances in 2020 and 2019, respectively.

While the numbers cause concern, Kane urged residents to keep their composure.

“Don’t get paranoid,” Kane said. “What you have to do is have some common sense.”

Carjacking, he explained, is a crime of opportunity and offenders look for a specific quality when choosing targets.

“They’re looking for you to be distracted,” said the commander.

Kane directs drivers to stay aware of their surroundings. That means not checking your cellphone while in traffic or driving with earbuds in, the latter being illegal under state law anyway.

The popular bump-and-run tactic, which involves a carjacker rear-ending the victim’s vehicle, is not much of an issue in Oak Park, unlike Chicago, according to Kane. Still, it could happen.

“When it happens, you can get on your phone and call 911 for the police because of the accident,” said Kane, “before you even get out of your car.”

The driver can also move the car to a more populated area, such as a gas station, to observe the car for potential damage sustained from the hit.

“The other thing we tell people is pay attention when you come home,” said Kane. “Some vehicular hijackings happen while people are pulling in front of their house.”

If you see an unfamiliar car or people you don’t recognize, Kane suggests not exiting your vehicle.

“Don’t start pulling into your garage if there’s two or three people sitting outside of your garage that you don’t know,” he said.

“Don’t put your life in jeopardy for a piece of property”

Paul Kane, Commander

The same goes for the front of your home. Kane suggests circling the block and contacting the police. The department will send an officer to check out the situation.

“The officers here at Oak Park, they’re very professional,” said Kane. “They will talk to them and see if there’s if there’s an issue or not.”

For those who can’t park directly outside their home, the Oak Park Police Department will provide an officer escort to see you safely inside.

When it’s dark out, Kane advises calling someone at home to have them wait for you at the doorway with the front porch light on. But vehicular hijackings do not exclusively happen at night. Many happen in broad daylight, so stay alert, regardless of the sun’s position in the sky.

The commander noted that the Oak Park Police Department is using a variety of methods to combat carjacking, including plain-clothes officers, as well as higher visibility and saturation of police vehicles.

No one particular kind of vehicle is more likely to be taken. Make and model have no bearing generally.

“We’ve seen them take old Volkswagens. We’ve seen them try to take Range Rovers,” he said. “We’ve seen them take BMWs and we’ve seen them take Toyotas.”

Whatever the vehicle, there is a good chance the Oak Park Police Department will find it if it gets carjacked. Of the 22 vehicles taken this year, the police have recovered 21, according to Kane.

Once the stolen vehicles are recovered, technicians sweep them for fingerprints and other evidence.

“Detectives have been able to make several arrests after the fact, based on the evidence they’ve uncovered in these cars,” said Kane.

Should anyone come face-to-face with a carjacker, he advises people to take note of the carjacker in as much detail possible. As one never knows what is going on in a carjacker’s mind, Kane also advises handing over the vehicle then calling the police as soon as possible afterward.

The most important piece of advice Kane offers citizens is to remember that a vehicle is just a piece of property.

“Don’t put your life in jeopardy for a piece of property,” he said.

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