DETROIT – When they pull up to a gas station these days, Detroit drivers are looking beyond the price per gallon at a far more threatening concern: carjackers.
The armed auto thieves have become so common here that parts of the bankrupt metropolis are referred to as “Carjack City,” and many motorists fear getting out of their vehicles even for a few moments to fill a tank.
So gas stations are taking steps to protect customers, and the city has formed a special police team to go after suspects. Convicted carjackers will even get their faces and prison sentences plastered onto billboards.
“You need to catch these people and make a good example of them,” said Mousa Bazzi, who owns a Mobil station in a semi-desolate neighborhood bordering Detroit’s east riverfront. He keeps his business well-lit and continually has two to four employees inside to ensure “there’s always an extra hand or two” in case of trouble.
Authorities blame many of the carjackings, ironically, on improvements in vehicle security. Anti-theft equipment, GPS systems and advanced locks now prevent many vehicles from being driven without a key in the ignition.
That makes it difficult or impossible for thieves to steal parked cars, leading them to target vehicles that are occupied, said Jonathan Parnell, of Detroit’s auto-theft squad.
Also contributing to the thefts is a strong demand for stolen wheels and tires, police said.
Bazzi’s station displays pale-green decals depicting a lighthouse — a symbol that his business has joined the city’s anti-carjacking effort. To be part of the program, stations must have security cameras, good lighting, be open 24 hours and have clerks willing to help motorists and provide a phone for emergency calls.
“There is a waiting list,” Sgt. Michael Woody said. “We have so many gas stations that want to become a lighthouse. You get better protection with that big sticker in the window that tells criminals there is proper equipment that will help police investigate these crimes.”
Detroit police reported 720 carjackings last year in the city of fewer than 700,000 people. That’s down from nearly 850 in 2011 and 1,231 in 2008.
The decline may partly be due to Detroit’s freefalling population, but the thefts still exceed the carjackings in some comparably sized U.S. cities.