FBI Director William S. Sessions, reacting to a spate of "carjacking" incidents in the Washington area, including one in which a mother was dragged to her death, on Tuesday elevated the offense to a priority in the FBI's stepped-up program against violent crime.
Sessions' action reflects the fear among some middle-class Americans that the increase in carjacking--in which vehicles are taken forcibly by armed thugs--has confronted them with possible violence at their doorsteps.
"Carjacking is a crime that affects all of us--a huge population," said Gerald M. Caplan, dean of the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and former general counsel of Washington's Metropolitan Police Department. "It's not something you can protect yourself from by building a moat or locking a door."
Joint federal, state and local task forces, sponsored by the FBI, are now operating in 42 cities across the country, including Los Angeles, to counter gang- and drug-related violence. Their focus is being expanded to include carjacking in areas where it has become a significant crime problem, Sessions said.
Authorities in the Los Angeles area have been wrestling with carjacking for several years, but it has not reached "epidemic" levels, spokesmen for the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said Tuesday.
Although the FBI and local police departments do not compile separate statistics for carjackings, Detective Mel Arnold of the LAPD's Van Nuys Division said that his area experienced 118 carjackings last year. While the number was probably a record, it still accounted for only about 6% of the robberies and 2% of the auto thefts in the 250,000-population area last year, Arnold said.
Ironically, the taking of cars at gunpoint, knifepoint or by threatening a driver with some other weapon has increased along with the rise in the use of automobile anti-theft devices, which have made unoccupied cars harder to steal, noted John Collingwood, the FBI's director of congressional and public affairs.
"It used to be that money or wallets were the objects of robbers," Collingwood said. "Now as cars have become harder to steal, the car becomes the object of robbery."
Under the move announced by Sessions, the task forces concentrating on gangs and violent repeat offenders "will start using their techniques to focus and capture carjackers," Collingwood said.
In cases in which carjacking turns out to be organized criminal activity, the task forces will invoke federal statutes that carry heavier penalties than local law, he added. In other cases, the crime will be prosecuted under state and local law.
Sessions' attention was drawn to carjacking by a series of the crimes in the Washington area. The most notorious was a Sept. 8 incident in which a suburban Howard County, Md., woman driving her 22-month-old daughter to preschool was attacked by carjackers. As the robbers attempted to flee with her car, she became trapped in her seat belt and was dragged along the pavement for a 1 1/2 miles.
The woman, Pamela Basu, 34, died of massive injuries; the child, who was tossed from the automobile by the carjackers, was uninjured.
Motives for carjacking appear to range from joy-riding to using the automobiles in other crimes to selling them for parts.