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 sign 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.
Sharlonda Buckman, executive director of a Detroit nonprofit, was at a gas station on an October morning when she ran inside for aspirin. Back inside her SUV, she was just closing the door when she saw a carjacker shove his gun inside.
She screamed and jumped out of the vehicle. The carjacker jumped in and drove off. Three other customers gave chase in their vehicles. One caught up to the SUV and got shot in the leg by the carjacker, who was later arrested.
Now, Buckman said, she tries not to pump gas at all.
"If the night catches me, I won't pump gas in the city," she said. "Or I'll call somebody to meet me."
It's difficult to know how Detroit's carjackings rank nationally because many police agencies lump carjackings with all armed robberies in annual reports to the FBI.
Newark, New Jersey, with a population of 280,000, had 382 carjackings last year, giving it a per capita rate that is actually higher than Detroit's. Memphis, Tennessee, with a population of 655,000, had slightly more than 400 carjackings over three years from 2011 through 2013. El Paso, a rapidly growing western Texas city of 670,000, reported only 15 carjackings last year and 18 in 2012.
Through May 19, Detroit has recorded 191 carjackings in 2014, including the Feb. 24 shooting death of CVS security guard Courtney Meeks, who rushed toward a car being taken by three men, and the Feb. 4 slaying of Donald Bradshaw, a 68-year-old man who was beaten to death with a tire iron after he was carjacked at an intersection.
Prosecutors, the FBI and Detroit police recently announced a campaign to spread the word about stiffer federal penalties for carjacking, which can include the death penalty if someone is killed. A similar campaign that includes billboards with photos of convicted carjackers started last summer in Newark.
Detroit police have also announced a partnership with General Motors' OnStar roadside assistance service to track down stolen vehicles and promote rewards tied to an anonymous tip line.
To avoid becoming a victim, security guard Greg Champion wears a handgun on his hip whenever he's pumping gas.
"I don't want to surprise you," Champion said. "I want you to know I'm armed, and I want you to know I can defend myself, and I want you to go somewhere else."
Christine Reed takes the opposite approach. The 27-year-old mother of two won't stop for gas in Detroit. She lives north of the city in Warren and works four days a week cleaning offices downtown.2 comments on this story
If she's in a bad section of town, Reed said, she passes through red lights because it's tougher to carjack a moving target.
"It's not a safe place anymore," Reed said. "It's dangerous."
The state-appointed emergency manager tasked with restructuring Detroit's $18 billion in debt has said crime needs to be reduced to make the city attractive to new residents and businesses.
That's going to take more and better resources, said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who complains that she has only a few assistants to try carjackings.
"When nobody has any resources ... all we can be is reactive," she said.