Baltimore police are recommending motorists lock their doors and call 911 during minor fender benders in the city after a string of incidents in which bumps from behind turned into armed carjackings.
The incidents have occurred across the city, from the South Baltimore peninsula to the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood neighborhood in North Baltimore. Some motorists have been beaten after getting out of their vehicles to inspect potential damage to their cars, police said.
"It's been widespread. It hasn't been isolated to any particular area of the city or any particular time," said T.J. Smith, the Police Department's chief spokesman. "It's something that's a pattern and a problem. We need the citizens to be vigilant and understand that this is going on and help us solve this problem. This is much bigger than a stolen car."
In an email Monday to local residents, Maj. Richard Worley Jr., commander of the Northeast District, called it a "Bump & Rob Crime Pattern" that has been occurring for weeks.
"The criminals are still committing these crimes even after we have made several arrests," Worley wrote, advising residents to "call 911 immediately, lock your doors and remain in your vehicle" if they are bumped from behind.
"If you see an officer, flash your lights and hit your horn to get their attention," Worley wrote. "If possible, try to move your vehicle to an open business or an area captured by cameras. This is a serious issue because a few victims have been beaten and in a few cases the suspects had weapons."
Such instructions represent a stark departure from the more traditional pattern of drivers exchanging insurance information or finding no damage and moving on.
The Johns Hopkins University has sent out multiple alerts about the trend to its Homewood campus community, including one Tuesday in which it recounted an attempted carjacking Sunday in the 2800 block of N. Calvert St.
"Similar to other carjackings that have occurred recently throughout Baltimore City, the victim's car was rear-ended by a vehicle and when the driver checked the damage, the occupants of the striking vehicle approached the victim," the alert said. "In this particular case, one of the suspects displayed a gun and demanded the victim's keys but upon hearing the police had been called, the suspects ran back to their vehicle, a brown Toyota Camry, and fled the scene."
The alert said the victim was not injured but recommended motorists involved in accidents "advise the police on the phone and drive to an open service station or business and await police arrival" if possible.
The university also sent out a previous alert about an incident at West 34th Street and Beech Avenue about 12:10 a.m. on April 10, when a campus community member's Honda Civic was stolen by a group of four to five males estimated to be between 13 and 17 years old. The group jumped out of an SUV when the man got out of his Civic, the alert said.
"One of the suspects struck him in the back of the head and another threw him to the ground and took his wallet," the alert said. Another then jumped in the Civic and drove off as the others got back into the SUV to flee.
Police have confirmed an incident about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at McHenry Row in South Baltimore, in which an Acura TL was stolen after being bumped from behind. The owner of the Acura was shoved during the altercation.
Smith said the department saw a similar pattern in carjackings late last year.
Most of the recent incidents have not resulted in injuries to the victims, he said. Many have involved small groups of young male and female suspects, and police believe that at least a dozen individuals are involved in the crimes. Many have involved an accomplice to the driver of the striking vehicle jumping into the victim's vehicle and pulling off, Smith said.
"This is their method to lure you out of your vehicle," he said. "We absolutely need to warn that your average fender bender is something that you need to be alert and aware of at this time, because we have this issue going on."
Several recent arrests have not disrupted the pattern, Smith said.
Smith said he did not have exact data Wednesday on how many such incidents have occurred, in part because they are categorized differently depending on the circumstances.
If the victim is assaulted in any way, it becomes a carjacking robbery, he said. Otherwise, it is an automobile theft.
As of April 30, there had been 110 carjacking robberies in the city this year, compared to 75 during the same period last year — representing a 47 percent increase.
There had been 1,359 automobile thefts, compared to 1,136 this time last year — representing a 20 percent increase.
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.