By Missy Wilkinson | | October 16, 2021

The first time the guy in the hooded sweatshirt and face covering passed my car, I ignored the needle prick of fear that ran through me. It was 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2. I was parked and Googling directions to a costume party, dressed as a peacock.

The second time he appeared, I couldn’t ignore him. He told me to get out of my car and give him my phone and my money. I complied. He and two male accomplices got in my vehicle and drove off, leaving me shedding feathers in the shadows of Louisa Street.

I knew how the carjacking would go down as soon as it started. I knew because I’d interviewed two carjacking victims earlier that week for a story about how that crime is surging in New Orleans. In just a few seconds, I’d joined their ranks.

According to the New Orleans Police Department’s calls for service data, 2020 saw the highest number of carjackings in New Orleans in a decade — 278 people called police reporting carjackings that year. That’s a 104% increase from 2019.

So far, 2021 is on track to eclipse 2020. With two and a half months left in the year, 271 people have already reported carjackings.

That mirrors national trends, according to LSU professor Michael S. Barton, a sociologist who specializes in criminology and urban sociology. Although information is limited because the FBI does not gather national data for carjackings, cities including Chicago, Kansas City, Louisville, and Washington report carjacking surges, according to NPR. A large portion of the crimes are committed by teenagers.

The NOPD didn’t respond to a request for comment. But in an Oct. 8 press conference, after a week that included two mass shootings and 20 gunshot victims, seven of whom were fatally wounded, Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said police are confronting a “bolder, more brazen criminal element.”

“We’re dealing with a different criminal element at this point in time,” Ferguson said. “We have to continue to do our diligence, whether they are juveniles or adults, to ensure we hold them accountable for their actions.”

Even before I was carjacked, it was evident that New Orleans was in the throes of a carjacking surge. There were reports on neighborhood watch groups, in the NOPD’s daily log of major offenses and among my friends.

One friend who’d been carjacked got her car back. It was riddled with bullet holes. It had been used in a drive-by shooting, police said.

An Uptown resident got carjacked in her driveway at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, an AR-15 stuck in her face by a 14-year-old suspect.

“He pulled open the door, pointed a gigantic rifle at my head, and said, ‘Get out of the car, bitch,'” said the victim, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns for her safety. “It was like time stopped.”

So what is behind it all? There are lots of factors, but according to a citation in Barton’s paper, “Collective Resources and Violent Crime: New Orleans Before and After Katrina,” disruptions to communities from a disaster may result in short-term increases in crime.

Anecdotally, that pattern seemed to be repeating itself in post-Ida New Orleans, where storm debris lined the streets for weeks and traffic signals remain defunct more than a month after the storm.

After I called 911, police arrived on the scene five minutes later. Thinking of the story and the uncanny timing of my crime incident, I asked them what was driving this surge.

“These things come in waves,” an officer told me. He didn’t elaborate.

Barton, however, did. In addition to the storm, the pandemic is also likely a factor in rising crime rates.

“COVID-19 is going to do a bizarre thing to crime and crime data,” Barton said. “People are out of work, losing family members — there are so many things that have changed over the past 18-19 months that have led to additional strains, and I suspect that connects with what the officer said about a wave.”

When it comes to carjackings, he cites the prevalence of face masks as a factor (suspects know they can cover their faces without arousing suspicion). Also, disrupted supply chains have led to car shortages and rising used-car prices that make vehicle theft more rewarding.

“People are stealing cars to commit other kinds of crime or chop them up for parts,” Barton said.

Louisiana law defines carjacking as a violent crime, along with homicide, shooting and armed robbery. According to a July report by watchdog group The Metropolitan Crime Commission, violent felony crime increased precipitously in New Orleans over the last 18 months.

New Orleans police take a number of things into consideration when they classify a crime incident as a carjacking, including whether the victim was removed from the vehicle. But some incidents that might seem like carjackings to an ordinary person are classified as car thefts. Recently, a 70-year-old woman had her keys snatched away and her car stolen while she was unloading it. The crime was classified as a theft.

Barton said carjackers often show a high level of organization and planning, looking for areas with escape routes, high value targets and places to hide so they can keep an eye out for potential victims. He likened the process to fishing—a metaphor the Uptown victim reiterated when she watched a neighbor’s surveillance video footage of her attack.

“They’re hunting—my neighbor used that term, and it was jarring, but that’s what they were doing. They’re looking for the opportunity,” she said.

I wondered if carjackers targeted women, but my analysis of 2021 police reports about carjacking showed the crime was fairly evenly divided along gender lines: 73 victims were male and 67 were female.

Carjackings aren’t evenly distributed throughout the city. Barton said carjackers focus on areas with high-value targets. An analysis of this year’s 911 call data reveals that the lion’s share were concentrated in Little Woods, where 25 people were carjacked. Village De L’est is in the No. 2 spot with 11 carjackings, followed by St. Roch and Mid-City, which had 10 and 9 carjackings, respectively. The CBD, Bywater, 7th Ward, St. Claude and Plum Orchard areas were tied for the No. 5 spot, with eight carjackings each.

My neighborhood, Bywater, fits Barton’s model: an affluent, gentrifying area with distracted citizenry. Mine was the second carjacking on that block in less than two weeks. A month earlier, a woman was carjacked outside Bywater’s Crescent Park in the 3200 block of Chartres Street. In a quintessentially New Orleans bit of small-town connectedness, that Bywater victim happened to know the Uptown victim, and I interviewed her, too.

“It was about 4:30 p.m., and I had the day off work,” said the Bywater carjacking victim, who asked not to be identified due to concerns about her safety. “I decided to take the dog down to walk in the park. I usually bring a book, hang out in the park and read, get a beer.”

She noticed broken glass in the parking lot and a teen boy sitting on the stairs, but thought little of it until he approached her gray 2017 Honda CRV and opened its door.

“He put a gun to my head, and he was like, ‘Get out of your car. I’m going to take your car,’” she said. When she scrambled to collect her dog, the suspect cocked his gun and started counting down.

“I had mace and a good little hunting knife in my driver-side door, but he opened my door and was just there with a gun in my face,” she said. “There’s nothing anyone can do to prevent that kind of thing.”

I consider myself lucky that I didn’t see a gun, and that I didn’t experience physical assault. The Bywater victim didn’t leave her house for a week and a half after her carjacking. The Uptown victim is being treated for acute stress disorder.

“I see danger everywhere now,” the Uptown victim said. “It took me a week to get into a car as a passenger, and I cried the entire way.”

To me, becoming a carjacking victim feels a lot like becoming a hurricane victim. Both experiences knocked out my communication and mobility, and made things harder financially.

I’m glad to have a bike and a supportive community that has offered me rides and company, and sent me flowers, chocolate chip cookies, prayers and reiki. It means a lot, especially considering how emotionally spent New Orleans is after weathering so many disasters in so little time.

I have a lot of faith in New Orleans’ resiliency, but I wonder how long it will take to recover from a pandemic, a hurricane and a violent crime wave. A lot other people in New Orleans are asking the same question.

“People have roofs blown off. We still don’t have a refrigerator. All kinds of people are going through all kinds of trauma right now, and then you add this—carjackings. How do you go out at night now?” the Uptown victim said. “And when you see it (done by) someone who’s 14, it makes it all worse. What are we doing? What kind of life are these kids born into? How can we make this better for them, too?”