“There’s a sophistication to these organizations”: What’s behind Toronto’s surge in carjackings? We asked hold-up inspector Richard Harris

“There’s a sophistication to these organizations”: What’s behind Toronto’s surge in carjackings? We asked hold-up inspector Richard Harris

Courtesy of Toronto Police Service

It’s not just Mitch Marner—carjackings are surging citywide. From January to May of this year, the city experienced 69 of these violent car robberies, compared to 64 in all of 2021. That comes on the heels of a steady increase in overall car thefts in recent years, from 3,282 in 2015 to 6,508 in 2021.

We asked inspector Richard Harris, the officer in charge of the Toronto Police Service’s Hold-Up Squad, what’s behind the surge, how police can stop it, and how Torontonians can protect themselves.

We’ve known publicly for a few months that carjackings have been on the rise. When did you start noticing this trend at the TPS?
I would say from the fall of 2021 onwards, and lately it’s become a topic of discussion two or three times a week here internally, with all of these ongoing investigations. The number is staggering and it’s not only in Toronto but all across the GTA. 

The techniques thieves use are also changing, correct? Could you describe what a typical carjacking looks like these days?
There are different ways of committing these robberies. Sometimes, it’s following the victim to a certain area, blocking their path and robbing them. Other times, there’s intentional vehicle-to-vehicle contact, where the victim’s natural response is to get out and check the damage. Then they’re blitzed by the suspects.

We’re starting to see a lot of physical force being used and more weapons involved. Some victims, unfortunately, are experiencing some sort of injury. Thankfully, no one has had to do any lengthy stays in the hospital, but as I’ve said before, the psychological trauma is just as concerning.

Do we know why these crimes have skyrocketed? Is this a spate of random one-offs, or is there an organized-crime element?
There’s definitely greater sophistication, and it leads us to believe organized crime is involved. We can attribute a big chunk of these robberies to the same persons or groups of people. 

Sometimes we’re seeing the stolen vehicles reappear in other crimes, used as a getaway vehicle. We’re also increasingly seeing high-end vehicles being targeted, and sold on the underground market for a fraction of their normal price. 

So if I’m driving a 10-year old hatchback, I may be less at risk than someone driving a $150,000 Mercedes?
Not necessarily. We’ve also seen lower-end vehicles targeted—sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason. We had one evening where it seemed like the thieves were exclusively targeting Volkswagen Tiguans. So I can’t predict what vehicles will be next. But we are seeing more high-end vehicles. We partnered with York Regional Police last year on an investigation involving high-end vehicles that were later found overseas. Some in the United Arab Emirates, some on container ships off the coast of Malta. 

Last year, Canadian customs officials seized around 700 cars, mostly stolen from Ontario, at ports in Montreal and Halifax. How does a criminal organization get something as hard-to-hide as a car out of the province, onto a cargo ship and out of the country?
There’s a sophistication and a hierarchy to these organizations. The carjackings take place, the cars move from the place they’re stolen to somewhere they can be stripped of the factory GPS so they can’t be tracked, and then moved along. Obviously these people have contacts at the ports—not necessarily employees, but contacts who can get the cars into containers, and then off-land to some predetermined destination. 

Where are these crimes taking place: is a quiet dead-end street late at night more likely than the middle of the day on Queen Street?
It’s usually around dusk, but we’ve had some that happen early in the day and in the wee hours of the night. It’s often a crime of opportunity. If suspects spot a vehicle they’re after, time of day doesn’t really seem to matter to them. We’re currently investigating a series of carjackings where the victims are in their driveways, at their personal residences. Two or three unknown suspects will drive up, one or two get out of the car, rob the victims of their vehicle and both cars get away. We’ve seen it in the west end, east end, midtown and the Yonge Street corridor. There’s no pattern to it. 

I know this all sounds a bit scary, but people should rest assured that there’s a complete city response, and even a GTA response. We’re working with other GTA police because they’re experiencing the same increase.

The thieves aren’t stopping at the city limits, so you can’t either?
Yes, exactly, these suspects have no borders. So we have communications daily between all police services, particularly with our holdup units. And our analytical staff help us get a jump or a lead quickly, so we’re not hearing about the latest hold-up weeks after it’s happened. 

And how are these investigations going so far? How many of these crimes have been solved?
We’re sitting at roughly a 37 per cent clearance rate so far. The remaining portion are under investigation and we have persons of interest, of course, but I can’t get into that. 

If a motorist gets “blitzed,” as you say, by these thieves, what should they do?
Try to comply. I know it’s frustrating because so many people think, “This is my hard-earned property,” but people are getting hurt. A person’s safety far outweighs a vehicle’s value. The incidents have increased, but the messaging remains the same: be vigilant when parking, choose well-lit areas, don’t leave valuables in plain view. But like I said, unfortunately, sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason.