Carjacking is on the rise in Philly

car theft
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Like many Philadelphians, I watched the surveillance camera video of a 78-year-old woman being pepper-sprayed, punched and knocked to the ground by three young women who took her car keys forcibly and drove off in her car.

Like many Philadelphians, the video made me angry. 

Sadly, carjacking is on the rise in Philadelphia. 

I spoke to Philadelphia Police Capt. John J. Ryan, the commanding officer of the Major Crimes Division, and I asked him about the crime of carjacking.     

“In Pennsylvania, carjacking is stealing someone’s car through robbery,” Ryan said. 

“I could strongarm you, knock you to the ground, take your keys and drive off. That’s carjacking. Car theft is when you go into Wawa and leave your car running, which people often do, and someone just hops in the car and drives away. Now, if you come outside of Wawa and catch me getting into your car and we end up in a fight and I still drive off with your car, that’s a robbery, also called carjacking.”

Image: Courtesy of Capt. John J. Ryan

Ryan said that carjacking exposes one to a Hobbs Act violation, which is a federal instrument in which the federal government has jurisdiction. The federal penalties are far stiffer than the state penalties. 

Statistically, the number of carjackings has nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020, and Ryan noted that there were 115 carjackings from Dec. 1, 2020, to Feb. 3.    

“From the arrests we have, we see a lot of juveniles, 17 and 18. They are on the path to being hardened criminals,” Ryan said. 

“Most are joyrides, but we did arrest a guy who was selling the carjacked cars. He was a career adult criminal. Some involve drugs and it is not entirely clear if it’s actually carjacking. People loan their cars to drug dealers for product, and they make up stories. There is a little bit of that nonsense.” 

Ryan said that they have special investigations units in all divisions and Major Crimes is supporting them with city-wide patterns and analysis. 

“We are hitting all the recovered cars with forensics. We are looking at the recovered locations and trying to look at patterns. We are recovering video and issuing patrol alerts to the districts. We are giving the police something to key in on.”

Homicides are infrequent with carjackings, as homicides during a robbery are infrequent, but they do happen, Ryan said. He said people have been seriously injured when they were dragged by their stolen car. Victims have been injured by diving into a window or diving on top of the car. Ryan does not recommend this action.

“You can always buy more stuff, but you can’t buy more you.”

Concerning the three women who allegedly carjacked the 78-year-old woman, two of the three suspects have been arrested.

“One is an adult – 18, and one is a juvenile – 17. We are still looking for the third,” Ryan said. 

Ryan gave credit to Capt. James Kearney, the commanding officer of the South Detectives Division. 

“Capt. Kearney and his SIU detectives did a lot of work on that and they were able to bring that job in. They did a lot of good investigative work and got enough information to pass on to the U.S. Marshals so they could go and grab them.

“It is a shocking crime, and the elderly often suffer from heart attacks and other injuries that are a result of their being mishandled during these things.”

Ryan said carjacking was a city-wide issue and they have seen an increase in all of the city’s six police divisions. 

You can always buy more stuff, but you can’t buy more you.

– Capt. John J. Ryan

“We look at the data and the analysis and focus the patrols where the patterns are showing. This is the first and most basic step you can take. My unit is tasked with the investigative end to assist and bring in as many of these jobs as possible. We want to get the prolific offenders off the streets,” Ryan said. 

Ryan said that on Feb. 15, a 17-year-old and his brother, who is unidentified at this time, carjacked a man in the afternoon at 300 South 10th Street. They robbed him and took his vehicle. Later that evening, they stopped at 18th and Vine and robbed another man walking on the street. 

“They were going through his pockets when he pulled out a gun and shot one of the robbers in the head,” Ryan said. 

“Both of the suspected carjackers are in custody. They used the carjacked car to commit further crimes. That’s another nexus for carjacking.” 

Ryan advises potential victims of carjacking to be aware of their surroundings. Know where you are, who is near you, and who is approaching you. 

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be reached via

  • Paul Davis

    Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has covered organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white collar crime, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at

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