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What’s behind Toronto’s ‘staggering’ rise in youth carjackings and pharmacy robberies


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What’s behind Toronto’s ‘staggering’ rise in youth carjackings and pharmacy robberies

$10,000.

That’s how much Toronto police believe a young teen can get for stealing a luxury car at gunpoint and handing it over to adult criminals who then strip the vehicles of any identifiers and, often, ship them overseas.

That astronomical sum — for teens, at least — may help explain why this city is seeing a “staggering” rise in carjackings and other armed robberies involving youth, the head of the force’s hold-up squad said in a rare year-end interview with the Star.

“This year we’ve seen numbers that we haven’t seen in quite a few years,” said Insp. Rich Harris, who’s been busy this year trying to warn the public about how to avoid a carjacking situation and, if so unlucky, how to escape unscathed.

His unit — which handles retail and bank robberies as well as home invasions and carjackings — has seen 164 carjackings this year alone. That’s compared to just 59 in 2021.

Of those arrested, 19 per cent — about one in five — were a young person under the age of 18.

“Those are very concerning numbers,” Harris said.

Experts on youth violence worry ongoing inequalities, highlighted by the pandemic, are contributing to the allure of violent crimes that offer “life-changing” money. Those challenges are not unique to Toronto and are evident in other cities, including across the border.

For young people dealing with these issues, the promise of big money is enticing, said ex-gang leader turned youth advocate Marcell Wilson. And for the older criminals trying to recruit young people into crimes like carjackings, Wilson said, the process is “like putting up a job bulletin.”

Harris agreed: “To put rhyme or reason why specifically we’re seeing so many youths involved, there is some intelligence that would suggest that older persons obviously are facilitating this.”

The trend shows in police bulletins received daily by journalists:

“Four Boys Arrested for Series of Armed Carjackings and Pharmacy Robberies in Toronto & York Region,” read one in October.

The allegations: On multiple occasions a group of four boys stole cars at gunpoint, using a replica firearm, and demanding the drivers’ keys.

Then the group, allegedly using the stolen vehicles to get around, would enter a pharmacy “takeover” style — one pointing a gun at the employees and demanding narcotics and cash before fleeing in the stolen cars.

After being spotted by police getting into one stolen vehicle, they were arrested and charged with multiple offences, including, in the case of the eldest boy, eleven counts of robbery with a firearm.

Their ages: 16, 14, 14 and 14.

There are several different types of crime young people appear to be increasingly involved in.

The first involves luxury vehicles.

When the car is the target

In these cases, police believe adults are alerting younger acquaintances to in-demand models and recruiting the young people to steal them at gunpoint — sometimes arming the youth — and then directing them to a holding location, where the car can “cool off,” meaning have its GPS tracking and other identifying components removed. That’s where the young person’s role ends, relied upon just for the initial robbery that, if arrested, could mean less punitive sentences because their age would see them charged under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA).

When the adults take over, the cars are often moved to a shipping yard in containers where they can be sent overseas, police say, with certain marques in high demand — including Porsche, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Audi.

That demand has come in part because supply has been very low during the pandemic. According to Consumer Reports, auto manufacturers built 1.7 million fewer vehicles in 2021 than in 2019 due to backlogged supply chains for various components.

That supply and demand issue is also apparent in the steady increase in non-violent auto thefts in Toronto, up more than 80 per cent since 2017 to 6,572 cases in 2021.

When it comes to the high-end vehicles, some with push start buttons, Harris said, offenders “will go out of their way to solely target those vehicles” and use “the element of surprise” to take control of that car.

In February, the hold-up squad, working with several other forces and agencies, announced the arrest of seven suspects aged 20 to 23 in a series of “high-end” carjackings in which 19 vehicles were recovered, including Lamborghinis, Bentleys and Porsches.

“Investigators allege that the accused parties would use various distraction methods and then swarm victims as they exited or entered their vehicles,” the press release said. “Once stolen, it is further alleged that the GPS capabilities on the cars were removed before attempts were made — sometimes successfully — to transport the vehicles overseas.”

Security camera footage released by police in one instance shows a light-coloured Lamborghini SUV pulling into a driveway near Yonge St. and Finch Ave. as another car, police allege with three men inside, can be seen pulling up to the foot of the drive. The Lamborghini disappears from view into what appears to be a garage as two people, allegedly brandishing a knife, can be seen getting out of the second car and running up the driveway. Police said they demanded the victim’s keys and cellphone. The second car blocks the driveway as an altercation takes place between what appears to be one of the suspects and a victim. Then, one person returns to the vehicle at the end of the driveway as the Lamborghini backs out.

From there, police said York Regional Police Service helped track the car using GPS and a helicopter, leading the men to abandon the luxury SUV, which can retail at a base cost of around $250,000.

Footage from a police chopper shows an ongoing pursuit before police eventually caught up with the suspects. A total of four men were arrested and charged with robbery, trafficking of property obtained by crime and other offences.

The draw for stealing these higher-end cars is evident in the payoff.

“It’s a very lucrative business for the younger persons,” said Harris.

“The higher-end vehicles, there’s some intelligence that suggests those at, we’ll call it, Stage 1 where the carjacking takes place and the high-end vehicle is obtained, they’re getting in excess of $10,000 per vehicle.”

He called that a “life-changing” amount of money for these young people.

But, he said it’s clear the youngest people involved in the crimes aren’t the masterminds of the operation.

“The evidence would suggest that there’s no way the younger persons are 100 per cent behind the whole planning and execution,” he said, noting that police continue to work with Canada Border Services Agency and others to target overseas trafficking.

When the car is a tool in ‘hybrid’ crimes

The second type of carjacking young people are engaging in is quite different.

Less expensive cars are being targeted to be used as getaway vehicles in other crimes, including shootings, Harris said. But one of the most common uses for a getaway car in 2022 has been in armed robberies of pharmacies, a crime in which 45 per cent of those arrested this year have been youth.

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Pharmacy robberies have increased 131 per cent this year, to 113 from 49 in 2021.

Harris calls those “hybrid” crimes — both aspects, the carjacking and the pharmacy robbery, involve his unit.

When it comes to pharmacy robberies, the money in the register is only a bonus, Harris said.

“They are targeting, without doubt, the safes where the narcotics are kept.”

Investigators’ working understanding, based on the amount of narcotics being taken, is that stolen opioids are headed for illegal street sales in a city living through an ongoing overdose epidemic.

“With the demand, you gotta get the supply,” Harris said. “The amounts that are taken would suggest that there’s no way someone’s just using that for recreational use.”

In all cases, Harris noted these crimes are not victimless and often the trauma of having a weapon — replica or not — pointed or shown at a driver or store clerk is long-lasting.

“It’s one of those trends that we want to see curbed immediately, because the lasting effects that it has on the victims of these crimes, you can’t measure.”

He said the force’s engagement unit is working with pharmacists to be on alert for signs of possible robbery and how to protect themselves, including making sure their shop has clear sightlines to the street by removing signs and other window coverings.

Meanwhile, the Ontario College of Pharmacists voted on Dec. 12 to begin the process of requiring all community pharmacies to use time-delayed safes and signage promoting their use to passersby. The move will mean staff won’t be able to open safes for would-be robbers without a delay of several minutes, a delay that should discourage many robberies. Final approval is still required at a meeting in March 2023.

In a statement, the college said they are “monitoring the concerning rise in pharmacy robberies across Ontario” and said, “the safety and security of pharmacy teams and patients is a significant priority.”

“This type of crime puts people’s physical and mental health at risk, and stolen medications can contribute to the province’s illicit drug supply.”

As carjackings have ramped up, police have created a task force to deal with the crimes and continue to broadcast public advice: comply immediately, give up your car, get somewhere safe and call police.

Police have also warned drivers to be aware of their surroundings and not to sit in their cars with the doors unlocked or idle in isolated areas. Further, car owners can invest in anti-theft devices and try to park in well-lit, high-traffic areas.

What’s happening with Toronto youth

Each case of armed youth crime tells its own story, Harris said.

“To get to the root cause as to what would cause a young person to get involved in this, each one is different,” he said.

In 2022, four teens under the age of 18 have been killed to date in shootings, including one fatally shot in a school parking lot, a rate on par with the previous four years. An 18-year-old boy was also killed in the hallway of his Scarborough high school.

Beyond fatal incidents, advocates remain worried about the level of violence among teenagers, playing out both inside and outside of schools.

In North York, incidents at York Memorial C.I. and criticism of the administration’s handling of them — some of which stem from other issues like systemic racism — have led to staff refusing to show up to work and students staging protests over an unsafe learning environment.

Meanwhile, the city continues to face a shortage of resources for at-risk youth, while youth workers experience burnout and a lack of confidence the government has the right funding priorities.

Research suggests inequities highlighted by the pandemic could be a factor in the rise in youth crime.

Last year, the University of Chicago posted data on the spike in carjackings in that city during the pandemic.

By tracking where arrested youth lived, the researchers found a trend that overlapped with areas with low internet access and class attendance as well as disproportionately high substance abuse, gun violence and other factors — what the director of the school’s Crime Lab, Jens Ludwig, wrote in the Chicago Tribune was a “pressure cooker of trauma, violence and isolation.”

In Canada, similar conditions exist, and Statistics Canada has noted “widespread concerns about young people’s labour market prospects” since the start of the pandemic.

Before the lockdowns, Canada was experiencing a near-record low in youth unemployment but starting March 2020, the rate increased to 28.8 per cent, higher than during the Great Recession.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who focuses on race and justice issues, noted that youth unemployment for Black youth is also typically two times higher than the national average.

Combined with poor living conditions, a lack of opportunities and these youth not seeing themselves as having a “full stake in society,” Owusu-Bempah said these factors contribute to being recruited into organized crime.

At the same time, economic disparities continue to grow. The income divide in Toronto has widened, with the affluent, he noted, driving around in luxury vehicles.

“I don’t want to characterize these kids are Robin Hoods,” he cautioned. But “for some it’s probably basic needs,” he said, noting he’s watched the line for the food bank near his home grow over the last couple of years.

And, he said, adults “have often exploited the fact that young people are treated less harshly in the criminal justice system.”

Wilson, the former gang leader who now runs the One By One Movement to help intervene with at-risk youth, agreed organized criminals are not going to risk sacrificing their “good soldiers” to jail time for armed robberies and instead rely on youth who face more lenient YCJA penalties.

But the potential payoff for young people has grown, too.

Wilson explained that in his day new Jeep Cherokees were in particular demand, but the reward was just $1,000 per vehicle. And they weren’t carjacking — instead, they were stealing vacant cars and attracting far less attention.

Harris said there is evidence the teens who are committing armed crimes have access to “community guns” shared among multiple people or that guns are for rent in some neighbourhoods for use in carjackings and other crimes.

Though his unit has not drawn a connection between teens committing armed robberies and ongoing school shootings, Harris said the fact alone young people are armed is concerning.

Harris said the fact alone that young people are being armed raises the spectre of more violent incidents.

“Is it a possibility with kids with firearms? That is a possibility.”

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based crime reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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