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A crackdown on carjacking in the new year

A new task force was created last week by District Attorney Larry Krasner with the hopes of cracking down on a surging number of carjackings that are taking place throughout the city.

The Carjacking Enforcement Unit, which will work closely with the District Attorney Office’s Gun Violence Task Force and other law enforcement departments, will help solve and prosecute carjacking cases in the city, Krasner said.

“Today we are extremely excited to announce a special unit within the DA’s Office that will be tasked with taking the lead and going after and fully prosecuting carjacking cases,” Krasner said on Dec. 29.

According to police data, carjackings have jumped from 866 in 2021 to more than 1,300 in 2022. It shows an enormous jump from 224 reported carjackings in 2019 and 409 in 2020.

The Carjacking Enforcement Unit will be funded by a $1.5 million budget increase for the District Attorney’s Office over six months, which was approved by City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney.

“My colleagues and I in City Council have allocated over $300 million towards addressing crime prevention and gun violence reduction,” said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., chairman of City Council’s Public Safety Committee. “I’m proud of the work City Council has done in this area, and I commend the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office for focusing the resources we’ve given them in order to address the scourge of gun violence and other violent crime, such as carjackings, that are plaguing this city.

“City Council looks forward to continued collaboration with DA Krasner, his staff and all of our public safety stakeholders in 2023 as we work together to improve the lives of our city’s residents.”

The new unit will be led by Assistant District Attorney Helen Park, who served in the office’s Homicide and Non-Fatal Shooting Unit as well as the Gun Violence Task Force. She will be joined by nine prosecutors from the DAO’s Juvenile, Homicide and Non-Fatal Shooting, and Major Trials units.

“I’m honored by the opportunity to lead this unit,” Park said. “I see this as an opportunity to serve a city that I love dearly and care tremendously about and have been fighting for for many years.

“Carjacking by its very nature puts everybody’s sense of safety and security in danger. So I very much welcome this chance to collaborate with all of our law enforcement and community partners to help restore a sense of safety for the people of this city.”

Krasner said there is a direct association with carjackings and other violent crimes. He said in many cases, stolen vehicles are used in shootings, many fatal.

“Carjackings are being done with guns and there is an incredibly close connection between carjacking and car theft and shootings,” Krasner said. “We are seeing more and more that when there is a fatal shooting or a non-fatal shooting, it is done in a car that does not belong to the people doing the shooting.

“It’s part of how they hide their identities. It’s part of how they destroy evidence.”

As of late 2022, there were 305 carjacking arrests made in the city and, of those, charges were filed in 304 cases, according to police data. Of those cases, 159 involved adult suspects and 146 were committed by juveniles.

Assistant District Attorney Yasmine Finnegan will serve as the CEU’s Assistant Supervisor after  extensive experience in the youth justice system. She will handle carjacking cases involving minors.

“I am excited for what this unit will mean for the city, and more importantly for our office,” Finnegan said. “These crimes are crimes of opportunity.

“A lot of them happen in an instant and a lot of the time we are unable to identify the perpetrators. However, the ones that we can, we want the citizens to know we are watching and we are here for the victims and to work up these cases, working with our federal partners and law enforcement partners, using an investigative approach to solving these crimes and prosecuting them.”

The new unit will also draw on additional resources including forensic technology, criminal intelligence and personnel from the DAO’s Gun Violence Task Force, led by Assistant District Attorney William Fritze, and the DAO’s Homicide and Non-Fatal Shooting Unit, led by Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore. Data analysis conducted by the DAO’s DATA Lab will properly measure the CEU’s outcomes and efficacy and hold this new effort accountable.

“This new unit will enable my office to pursue strong cases built on solid evidence in order to hold accountable those who are threatening the lives and security of Philadelphia residents,” Krasner said. “This initiative will help us more vigorously prosecute dangerous individuals such as 28-year-old Jonathan Akubu, who is right now off of the streets and behind bars with no bail awaiting his day in court.”

Akubu was arrested earlier this year for his involvement in multiple gunpoint car robberies that resulted in the deaths of two people and the non-fatal shooting of two other victims in the course of the carjackings.

He was charged with two counts of murder as well as aggravated assault and multiple illegal firearm possession charges. He is believed to be involved with several more carjackings in the city.

Krasner said one major change in how the DA’s Office will approach prosecuting carjacking suspects is that cases will be handled vertically, meaning the same prosecutor will handle all levels of the process instead of multiple participants handling different sections.

There will also be significant technology upgrades for law enforcement officers funded by grants that will help with investigations.

“This should get us into this actual century in Philadelphia,” Fritze said. “We are woefully unprepared with our investigations.”

Upgrades will include tablets for detectives, drone cameras at crime scenes and license plate readers for following stolen cars.

“We’ll be able to track a car,” Fritze said. “If we know that a car was stolen or used in a shooting or a homicide, we have a better chance of being able to locate that vehicle more quickly.”

Krasner said he expects a quick contribution to the city’s struggles with carjackings and violent crimes.

“What we’re hoping to be able to prove here by the end of June is that when we really put resources into the crimes that tear apart communities, that we can make a big dent at the enforcement end,” Krasner said. “Of course, it will also be incredibly important to build up community and to work at the prevention end, but we think we can really make a difference.” ••

Mark Zimmaro
Mark Zimmaro
Mark Zimmaro is a reporter for the South Philly Review. Follow him on Twitter @mzimmaro or email at mzimmaro@newspapermediagroup.com
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