By Maria Maxham
Carjackings are rising in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. Forest Park police Chief Tom Aftanas is concerned the nature of the crimes is shifting in his town with fewer carjackings of opportunity – a car left running in a gas station – replaced by more targeting of vulnerable individuals.
On Nov. 15 in Forest Park, a 74-year-old woman, returning from a friend's home, was struck from behind by an unknown assailant after she exited her car while parking it in the garage. Her car was stolen.
On Nov. 17, an 80-year-old woman was the victim of a very similar crime. She was hit at least twice before two men stole her vehicle.
Both these attacks happened just days and blocks apart.
And according to Aftanas, carjackings in Forest Park are definitely higher this year than in previous years. In 2020, he said, the village has seen at least 16 car jackings, either attempted or successful. The highest number in any year previously was 11 in 2017.
Forest Park isn't alone. According to Oak Park's Police Chief LaDon Reynolds, Oak Park has experienced more carjackings too.
"We have seen an increase in both aggravated vehicular hijacking and vehicular hijacking since last year," Reynolds said in an email. "Year to date we have had 19 incidents compared to 16 during the same time period last year."
In River Forest, Police Chief James O'Shea said the village had no carjackings in 2019, but two plus one attempt in 2020.
The city of Chicago has also seen a large increase. Carjackings through mid-November in Chicago increased 124 percent over 2019, according to WGN Investigates. The total, 1,125 carjackings, is the highest in at least five years.
A Chicago Tribune interview with Brendan Deenihan, the Chicago Police Department's chief of detectives, provided some insights into why the city has experienced an increase in carjackings. Deenihan told the Tribune, in an article from Oct. 14, that the number of carjackings was already high but increased when civil unrest began in August. At that time, he said, they "really spiked out of control."
Deenihan also said the widespread use of masks might be contributing to the problem, potential criminals feeling more confident because they're less identifiable.
Aftanas echoed Deenihan's theory that an uptick in carjackings corresponded to the aftermath of the summer's unrest. Aftanas said he suspects that when would-be criminals see other people committing crimes and largely getting away with it, it emboldens them to do the same.
And, oftentimes, carjackers aren't caught. First, it's difficult to predict when and where the crime will occur. Aftanas said there are more detectives, both uniformed and undercover, out in the evening hours, "trying to be in the right place at the right time," but there is no real pattern to where or even when the attacks occur.
When officers do see the vehicle involved, they have the right to pursue, but drivers of stolen vehicles don't obey traffic rules, and a chase will be terminated if the officers feel they're putting other people in danger.
Stolen cars are often used in other crimes. On Nov. 20, two victims met outside Forest Park National Bank to exchange Girl Scout cookies, a particularly poignant detail, considering they were the victims of an armed robbery by two suspects. The license plate was caught on video and traced back to a vehicle stolen from another town.
The nature of the carjackings, at least in Forest Park, has changed slightly, said Aftanas. Previously, these crimes tended to happen at gas stations or in more public places, crimes of opportunity in which the victim wasn't specifically targeted.
The carjackings in the alley, though, seem more intentional, Aftanas said. While the victims may not have known the offenders, they may have been chosen or targeted because they seemed like easy victims.
It's important, then, to do whatever you can so you don't look like an easy target to potential carjackers.
Aftanas advises residents to be more aware of their surroundings at all times.
"If you see a car following you into your alley, do another loop," Aftanas said. "If they follow you again, drive over to the police station or call us. We will meet you."
What if you are in a situation where an armed criminal is demanding your car or keys or purse? "Give them what they want," said Aftanas. "Don't fight back. All those things are replaceable."
To avoid non-violent car-related crimes, such as burglaries from your vehicle or having your car stolen, a little common sense goes a long way.
During a recent spate of overnight burglaries from cars, it was discovered that many of those cars had been left unlocked, said Aftanas, making it considerably easier for a thief to get in. The simple answer: Keep your car locked at all times.
"Don't make it easy for people to take your belongings from your car," Aftanas said.
Cars are often stolen from gas stations because people tend to leave their vehicles running while they go inside the store to pay or purchase items.
"Criminals wait for someone to leave their vehicle unattended," Aftanas said.
For example, Thorntons, 601 Harlem Ave., is a spot where several cars have been stolen over the past few months. That location, on Harlem Avenue and so close to the I-290 expressway, is a "good" location for a criminal, because a) people often leave their cars running and b) it's close to the Eisenhower for a quick getaway.
In winter months, cars are stolen with greater frequency, said Aftanas, because people like to warm their cars up in front of their homes before getting in or leave them running while popping into a store or restaurant. But even if the key FOB isn't in the car, it can still be stolen and driven away.
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