2021 | Police & Fire

Carjackings in Montgomery County on pace to triple 2019 level

Police department official says many incidents happen close to D.C. border

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Carjackings in Montgomery County are on pace to triple by the end of the year from 2019.

Through Oct. 31, there had been 52 carjackings in the county, up from 19 in all of 2019 and 36 in all of 2020, according to data from the Montgomery County Police Department.

At the current rate, the year would end with 62 carjackings in the county.

Capt. Ruben Rosario, the director of the department’s Major Crimes Division, told Bethesda Beat that many of the carjackings are happening close to the Maryland-D.C. line near Silver Spring.

“I think what’s happening is people are running across the border and committing crimes and heading back down and dumping the cars. That’s a pattern we keep finding,” he said.

The majority of vehicles that are recovered, he said, are found in D.C.

Rosario isn’t sure what’s behind the increase in carjackings this year, but said the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a factor reflected in a general rise in crime throughout the county.

Through Oct. 31, 27 homicides had been recorded in the county, compared to 14 in all of 2019 and 17 in all of 2020.

Rosario noted that of the homicides recorded for this year, two were determined to be self-defense and the other occurred in a prior year, but was recorded in 2021, Rosario said.

Shootings in which someone was wounded but not killed are also up this year. There have been 35 through Oct. 31, compared to 33 in all of 2019 and 31 in 2020.

County officials previously said there isn’t one factor behind the crime spike in the county, but the pandemic might play a role due to stress, isolation and economic strife.

Rosario echoed those comments.

“It has been a difficult and stressful year in a lot of areas,” he said. “Everything from mental health to substance abuse have probably been some of the reasons that things have gotten a little more unbalanced, if you will. But it’s a really great question. It’s a tough one. I think it’s a collection of things.”

The county’s police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, has expressed concern over the disbanding of the police department’s auto theft unit, which happened during the last budget cycle.

Rosario said carjacking investigations have always been handled by the robbery section of the department.

“I wouldn’t say those two issues have a causal relationship,” he said.

But Rosario said that not having the auto theft unit has still made it more difficult to investigate vehicle thefts. Instead of having a dedicated unit of officers, auto theft investigators from different sections of the department are doing the job.

“When you have a centralized unit focused on one task, you have all those people in one space. When you don’t have a unit to do that, you do the best you can, but it’s going to be a lot more of a strain because resources are a bit disjointed,” he said. “Collaboration has to happen over a longer range.”

Lee Holland, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, told Bethesda Beat that the auto theft unit consisted of six officers, one master police officer and one sergeant. Additionally, the task force collaborated with officers in other jurisdictions.

“Carjackings aren’t just done in, say, Germantown. They’re done all over the region,” he said. “And if they start spreading in Montgomery County, but they’re also doing it in PG and they’re also doing it in Alexandria, our detectives have to work with other auto theft detectives to develop where the ring is.”

Without the specialized unit, auto theft detectives have been sent to police districts and have teamed up with district-level detectives, he said. But district-level detectives, Holland said, don’t have experience investigating auto thefts and are busy handling neighborhood crime such as residential burglaries and street robberies.

“We have cars stolen from Montgomery County that are in New York City,” he said. “Believe me, our detectives that are investigating burglaries and street robberies in your neighborhood don’t have time to go to New York City and deal with your auto theft.”

Holland said that while it’s true that carjackings are handled by the department’s robbery division, the auto theft unit often conducted sting operations to catch carjacking rings.

“Because they had the investigative experience of dealing with auto thefts [and] understanding cars, they were highly used in that regard, even though the robbery section was the one doing the investigation,” he said.

The department’s current approach to handling carjacking cases has been reactive instead of proactive, Holland said.

“We’re just taking reports and following up on the back end, rather than trying to be proactive in catching the ring as it’s happening.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com