The shift is one troubling indicator that the city’s youngest offenders are growing more aggressive and confrontational: Last year, teens made up 23 percent of all violent crime arrests, more than double the percentage in 2003.
“A number of years ago, car theft was off the scale. It was cool to get a car and joy ride,” said Daniel Okonkwo, executive director of DC Lawyers for Youth. “Now it’s an iPhone4, an iPod. Things you can’t afford when you don’t have money.”
Kip Patrick must have looked like he was a sure bet for having a smartphone in his pocket. He was wearing slacks and a button-down shirt as he walked alone near Ninth and U streets NW in the early morning of April 30 after finishing dinner and drinks.
As he walked by a group of youths, one of them suddenly shoved him, and he found himself rolling on the ground, scuffling with the guy.
“I got scraped up pretty good,” said Patrick, 38, who lives several blocks away.
When his BlackBerry Bold fell out of his pocket, someone in the group picked it up, and another youth pulled Patrick’s attacker off him. Then the whole group ran.
“I guess that’s D.C.,” said Patrick, who added that there had not been an arrest in the case. “But we can’t live in fear. If we do, D.C. isn’t a place anybody’s going to want to live.”
This year, juveniles account for 7 percent of overall arrests in the city — but about 45 percent of all arrests for robbery and carjacking, and 35 percent of burglary arrests, said D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.
“They are overrepresented in those categories,” said Lanier, who started noticing the trend last year. “Everyone wants an iPhone.”
Teens have represented 6 to 8 percent of total arrests in the District for the past five years. What’s changing is their crime of choice.
Last year, 381 juveniles were arrested in robberies or carjackings, compared with 257 arrested in 2007. Police arrested 186 young people accused of riding in stolen cars last year, compared with 506 in 2007.
One of the main reasons for the shift is that anti-theft devices made it increasingly difficult to steal a car about the same time smartphones started becoming more prevalent.
“Stealing cars got too hot,” said a 21-year-old man who as a youth spent time in the former Oak Hill detention center. “You can grab a phone and go.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals at his job.
Snatching smartphones has a somewhat similar appeal to stealing a car: The thief can enjoy it for a while, make calls or access Facebook. Then he can sell it on the street for instant cash. On Craigslist, iPhones sell for about $250.