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Sunday, July 14, 2024

ICYMI: A Recap of Carjacking Panel at Hill Center

When Jawanna Hardy received a phone call informing her that one of her students had missed 60 days of school, she was concerned but wholly unsurprised. “Kids can miss school and nothing is done,” Hardy said, highlighting the massive gaps that exist despite the multitude of resources available in the District.

Gang activity and violence, she noted, are at the epicenter of issues like truancy and chronic absenteeism which require creative solutions. All of these contribute to youth involvement in illegal activity.

Hardy’s organization Guns Down Friday, which works to address gun violence and related challenges within DC and Prince George’s County, found an unconventional way to help the student get back into school.

“I had to Uber him to school everyday because his school is in a neighborhood that is beefing with his neighborhood,” Hardy said. The funds come from donations to the nonprofit, but she says the outlay is worth it. “These kids are afraid to go to school.”

This fear, in combination with social media trends, the challenges posed by enforcement and the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are contributing factors to an issue that has impacted every neighborhood in the District: carjacking.

Hardy was part of the Understanding Carjacking panel that took place Jan. 30 at the Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE). Local leaders, law enforcement members and community advocates discussed the issue: why carjacking happens and what we can do about it.

Community Concerns

It’s now easier than ever for people to document everything they do via social media, said MPD First District Commander Colin Hall. Stealing cars has become a “trend” for youth, and the documentation has simultaneously taught others how to do the same.

The impetus for the panel came from two longform articles published in the Hill Rag and East of the River magazine dove into these trends, why kids carjack and what happens when they are caught.

Community membership appears to play a key role in the appeal of carjacking for kids. “It’s about your status and reputation and building that through these events,” Commander Hall noted.

In 2023 alone, the District reported 958 carjackings, Allen said: a nearly 100% increase from the previous year. 77% of those cases involved a gun. The median age was only 15. It’s “astounding and deeply disturbing,” the councilmember concluded.

The panel, moderated by Allen, included Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) First District Commander Colin Hall, United States Attorney for the District of Columbia Matthew Graves, DC Attorney General Brian Schwalb, Guns Down Friday Founder Jawanna Hardy, Credible Messenger of Building Blocks DC Reginald Mathis and foster parent and advocate Kevin McGilly.

Filling in the Blanks

Just as Hardy utilized a rideshare app to ameliorate one student’s situation, parents, organizations and community advocates are working to fill in the gaps for juveniles across the District.

The District’s youth, Schwalb said, are still reeling from the effects of pandemic isolation. Kids are finding ways to connect with one another via social media and networking sites and creating relationships with others who have also been disconnected from their communities. Mathis echoed this noting that many kids from troubled backgrounds are building “trauma bonds with their peers” which is contributing to the proliferation of these incidents through a combination of loyalty and a group mentality. “Once those are built, there’s almost nothing that can be done to break it,” he said.

While enforcement is a top of mind issue for many residents, the panelists noted a need to address underlying issues within the District’s communities and help provide at-risk youth and their families with the resources they need. Gaps in home stability and resources in housing, education, economic stability and access to mental healthcare were all discussed.

Yoga, gardening, retreats and dining at restaurants are all activities and programs that Building Blocks has funded to help supplement resources not traditionally available for kids. “We believe the answer lies in the community,” Mathis said, underscoring the crucial value of community-based programming.

Many challenges of enforcement are a direct result of these gaps. But the city also lacks effective “deterrents” for carjacking offenders, Schwalb says.

Many carjacking incidents are uniquely challenging to prosecute. Eyewitness testimony is difficult to get due to the nature of the crime, he said. Many youth are masked and dressed alike; add to that the short timespan and the trauma for victims of being held at gun point, Schwalb said, and victims are often unable to provide a description.

As a result, swift and effective consequences are simply not possible in many cases. “We cannot prosecute and arrest our way out of it,” Schwalb said of carjacking, noting that the OAG would continue to work diligently to prosecute cases and bring cold cases to justice despite these limitations.

A Pandemic of Crime

The advocates in particular pressured the attorneys and council member on the District’s response to crime.

Community member and foster parent of a youth offender, Kevin McGilly, compared carjacking to the pandemic.

When his 15 year-old foster son was arrested in his backyard after stealing a car, he was surprised the next day to learn that the charges were dropped. But that didn’t compare to his shock when he realized that his son’s entire situation also hit a dead end.

When a kid is arrested but cannot be charged, McGilly said, it is a point at which resources are clearly needed. But nothing was provided. “No follow up, no support, no nothing,” McGilly said.

McGilly likened carjacking to a virus. “We had a virus here four years ago: we shut down our schools down,” he said. “Here’s a virus that’s killing children.”

“We have let this virus spread and we have to shut it down,” McGilly said.

Allen emphasized the importance of “ensuring accountability” for offenders, but also the importance of continuing to prevent violence before it happens. “People who commit harm by carjacking or similar offenses, no matter their age, have got to have consequences and accountability,” Allen said.

Community activist and advocate Ron Moten spoke up at the end of the event about the importance of listening to families, residents and longtime community members about the best ways to ensure justice and accountability for violent offenders. “If you listen to the people on the ground who really know what’s going on then things will get better,” Moten said.

Read the two longford articles about carjacking in DC here and here. You can watch a full recording of the panel discussion here.

Sarah Payne is a reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at sarahp@hillrag.com.

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