OAKLAND, Calif. -- In Oakland, a city already marred by violent crimes, now comes another troubling statistic: Carjackings occur two to three times more frequently there than in other cities of comparable size, an analysis by The Chronicle found.
From January 2005 to December 2007, the first three years the Oakland Police Department began tracking the crime, 884 carjackings were reported in the city of 400,000 residents. By comparison, in San Francisco, a city with roughly twice the population, 334 carjackings occurred during the same time period.
"It's a real problem for the city," said Volkan Topalli, a criminologist at Georgia State University who researches carjacking and who will publish a book on the subject next year. "But it's a reflection of what's going on in Oakland at all levels, economically and in terms of education, demographics, population and so on."
Not all cities track carjackings, making it a highly underreported crime, Topalli said. In Los Angeles, a police spokesperson said the crime is classified by officers as either an auto theft or an armed burglary, and sometimes as both. At the request of The Chronicle, Topalli compared Oakland's carjacking data only to cities that had numbers on file: New Orleans, Atlanta, Memphis, Boston and St. Louis.
Oakland's average number of carjacking victims - 7.35 per 10,000 persons annually - also exceeds the national average of 1.7 victims per 10,000 persons, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002, the last year the federal government studied the crime.
Yet while high-profile carjackings, such as the Dec. 29 offense against state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, continue to play what Topalli called "an undeniable role in fueling the fear of crime that keeps urban residents off their own streets," there is also new evidence in other communities to suggest that the crime is preventable through vigilant police enforcement, and that enforcement can reduce other street crimes.
A county reacts
Prince George's County, a Maryland municipality of 840,000 residents that borders Washington, D.C., once had the state's highest carjacking rate but saw a 29 percent drop in carjackings last year from 476 to 338 after the Police Department launched a 24-officer carjacking unit.
Vernon Herron, public safety director of Prince George's County, said the unit's officers mapped well-known hot spots and flooded the areas with enforcement during peak crime hours. The officers parked "bait cars" with keys in the ignition to lure potential thieves, and then "processed the heck out of every recovered car" to lift fingerprints and evidence.
The results: From 2006 to 2007, police made arrests in nearly 1 of every 4 carjackings in the county and, along with a decrease in offenses, auto thefts also decreased 9 percent 11,377 to 10,383 and street robberies declined 7 percent 2,588 to 2,406. Overall, violent street crimes also decreased in the county, Herron said, a systemic decline his department credited to the work of the carjacking unit.
"Carjacking and auto thefts are 'relationship crimes' that are always connected to more serious street crimes down the road," Herron said. "Carjackers are the same guys committing that offense and others over and again. We realized if you take a carjacker off the street today, you're removing a gun, and another crime, from happening tomorrow."
Herron said his department was able to start the unit only after staffing increases. Oakland's department, by contrast, is currently understaffed by 70 officers.
In the case of Perata, police are now investigating the relationship between the carjacking and the shooting of then-10-year-old Christopher Rodriguez of Oakland, who was paralyzed in the incident 12 days after the senator's carjacking. Alameda County prosecutors are reviewing the possibility that suspect Jared Adams, 25, who is being held for shooting Rodriguez during a botched robbery attempt at a Piedmont Avenue gas station, is also responsible for the senator's carjacking.
But arrests in carjackings in Oakland are uncommon, said Sgt. Larry Krupp, who oversees an average of five new cases per week. In 2007, when 284 carjackings were reported in Oakland, 41 suspects were charged with the crime, an arrest rate of about 7 percent.
Criminologist Topalli cautioned that carjacking units, which have cropped up in several urban police departments, are only temporary fixes to a broader systemic problem.
"It's difficult for any police department to sustain the staffing levels that make a difference in carjacking enforcement," Topalli said. "Inevitably, someone will come in and replace the carjackers you take off the street; people age out of crime, and people age into crime."
2 types of carjackers
Topalli has interviewed 40 carjackers, and distinguished two types: the alert opportunist who stumbles across an opportunity too good to resist, and the predator who actively seeks out targets.
Topalli's research also found carjackers often used the cars to commit other crimes. Sometimes, they sold the rims and stereos for after-market profits, and the money earned from a carjacking ranged from $200 to $5,000, averaging around $1,750. Yet many times, Topalli found his subjects committed the crime to cruise through their own neighborhood to show off their wares known as "flossing", an attempt to obtain higher status.
The East Oakland neighborhood known to police officers as Beat 34X has witnessed more carjackings in the past three years - 49 - than any other police beat in the city. The square-mile neighborhood is bordered by 82nd Avenue to the north, 98th Avenue to the south, Bancroft Avenue to the east and International Boulevard to the west. During one five-day stretch in September 2007, three reported carjackings took place in the beat. And on International Boulevard, a major thoroughfare that runs nearly the length of the city, 112 carjackings took place in the past three years.
But every neighborhood in Oakland has recorded at least one carjacking.
Robert Shank, a 59-year-old software executive who has lived in Oakland eight years, was carjacked in January 2007 at 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue in the city's Uptown district, just 10 blocks away from Police Department headquarters. A pickup truck pulled up next to Shank's Nissan SUV just after Shank got out, and one of the suspects pointed a chrome-plated automatic at his face.
Shank said officers arrived within minutes of the crime, and he was able to give them detailed descriptions of his attackers. The swift response led Shank to believe his attackers might be captured; that never happened.
"They weren't kids out having fun," Shank said. "They were insistent, but not nervous. It was clear they were out to do a job, and one they've probably done before."
-- Search a database of carjackings in Oakland from 2005 to 2007 at sfgate.com/webdb/oaklandcarjack.