How law enforcement is trying to stop mob retail thefts

With in-store customers expected to return in droves for the holiday shopping season, law enforcement agencies are moving to halt a wave of organized “smash-and-grab” crimes at retailers across the US.

How law enforcement is trying to stop mob retail thefts
© Santa Rosa Police Department Stills from surveillance footage of a new smash and grab robbery that occurred Wednesday, 11/24/21, in Santa Rosa, California, at the Apple Store in the Santa Rosa Plaza. Hand out stills from the Santa Rosa Police Department.

In Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities, police departments are increasing patrols at retailers targeted by mobs of thieves in brazen raids. In Northern California, district attorneys formed an alliance to prosecute organized theft rings. At the federal level, the FBI said it is in “close contact” with local law enforcement investigating such cases and prepared to take further action.

“We have been seeing this wave of people invading stores in large numbers,” San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said. “There is no way in my mind that we can have a situation where 20, up to 80 people can invade a store or series of stores and there not be some communication and some organization.”

On the weekend before Thanksgiving Day, thieves swarmed the Southland Mall in Hayward, in the San Francisco Bay Area, smashing display cases with hammers at a store before grabbing jewelry and fleeing.

Three suspects were arrested November 20 after a mob ransacked a Nordstrom store in Walnut Creek, east of San Francisco. Some 80 suspects were involved, and they fled the outdoor mall in at least 10 vehicles, police said. That theft followed similar raids that weekend near San Francisco’s Union Square, where thieves targeted Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Bloomingdale’s stores, a Walgreens and cannabis dispensaries.

‘Instilling fear in merchants, customers and the wider community’

Seven Bay Area district attorneys — in San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties — announced last week an alliance that also included law enforcement and state agencies to combat organized retail theft.

Each office agreed to assign a prosecutor to target the thieves, including fencing rings and people who purchase the stolen goods, according to a joint statement.

“These are clearly carefully orchestrated crimes, working together in large groups to create a mob-like mentality,” Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said in the statement. “They are instilling fear in merchants, customers and the wider community. This is especially appalling at a time where many are out and about during the holiday season.”

Law enforcement presence increasing at retail locations

Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered “saturation patrols” by the California Highway Patrol near major retail sites in the state during the holiday season in response to the organized thefts.

Four men were arrested over the weekend in connection with a theft at a Home Depot in California, where as many as 10 people entered the Lakewood store Friday night and left with a range of tools typically used in smash-and-grab thefts — hammers, sledgehammers, crowbars.

The four men, ranging in age from 19 to 22, were taken into custody by Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office detectives and booked for conspiracy to commit burglary, officials said.

In Santa Monica, police said, “the keen observation skills and quick thinking” of a downtown security guard may have thwarted a smash-and-grab theft at a Nordstrom’s store last Friday.

Santa Monica Police Chief Ramon Batista said in a Facebook post Monday that the security guard radioed for police assistance after spotting seven vehicles carrying about 28 people parked in a fire lane outside the store. The people in the vehicles left before police arrived.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a Democrat, on Monday blamed cuts in the number of city police officers for the wave of smash-and-grab thefts as well as a spike in gun violence.

“Let me be clear, Oakland needs more police,” she told CNN’s Kate Bolduan.

Schaaf said the pandemic interrupted the city’s recruitment and training of new officers. She called for greater coordination by law enforcement at all levels to combat retail thefts.

“We need state and federal resources to interrupt those efforts,” she said. “Lord knows (the thieves) are coordinated. We need to be coordinated as well.”

Organized thefts have been reported throughout the country, including a case involving at least 30 people who stole electronics from a Best Buy store on Black Friday in Burnsville, Minnesota.

In Illinois, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said on Monday that his department was “particularly focused” on smash-and-grab thefts. He said two teenagers were arrested for the theft of $8,500 worth of items from a beauty supply store.

Chicago Police Chief of Operations Brian McDermott said the department had increased patrols in the central business district and other locations and tracking “stolen cars and vehicles typically used in these type of crimes.”

FBI ‘prepared to take a more active role’

An FBI spokesperson told CNN Monday that federal agents are monitoring the spate of brazen thefts and remain in close contact with local police.

“Should information come to our attention that constitutes a federal crime, we are prepared to take a more active role,” the spokesperson said.

Stephanie Martz, chief administrative officer and general counsel with the National Retail Federation, said smash-and-grab thefts have gradually increased over the past year and a half, starting with drugstores and spreading to department stores and high-end retailers.

About 69% of retailers reported a jump in organized retail crime in the past year, citing factors ranging from the pandemic to changes in sentencing guidelines, according to a 2021 retail security survey by the National Retail Federation. Many retailers who participated in the self-reported, online survey also said suspects have become more aggressive and violent.

The recent group shoplifting incidents come during what experts say is a decades-long decline in overall property crime.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report showed the country’s property crime rate at an all-time low in 2020. According to the National Commission for Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, this downward trend has continued into 2021.

In its most recent report, the NCCCJ — which surveys crime across 34 major cities — reported a 7% decline in nonresidential burglaries between the first quarter of 2020 and 2021. However, San Francisco, where many of the smash-and-grab thefts have taken place, reported a sharp increase in burglaries in 2020 compared to 2019. It’s an outlier in California, where the rate of burglaries has steadily declined over time.

Shoplifting data, however, can be flawed. For example, a report by the San Francisco Chronicle showed that the city’s 2021 monthly shoplifting reports saw a dramatic spike in September stemming from one Target store that had recently switched to a new reporting system.

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