The ransacking of businesses by organized criminals in California, a state where Democratic lawmakers have drastically slashed theft punishments, is part of a countrywide trend that merchants claim is driving up costs.
A group of about 20 thieves smashed windows and looted a Nordstrom department store in Los Angeles on Monday night, just days after high-end stores in the San Francisco Bay Area were targeted, prompting promises from state and local officials that order would be restored in time for the upcoming holiday shopping season.
Three individuals were detained in the smash-and-grab there, and LAPD vowed increased patrols near high-end establishments around the city ahead of Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend.
The episode in Los Angeles followed similar brazen coordinated crimes in Beverly Hills, San Francisco, and San Jose, including the looting of a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek by 80 masked burglars, some carrying crowbars, and the ransacking of a Lululemon shop by a mob of 40 robbers.
The electronics chain Best Buy told analysts in a conference call on Tuesday that organized thefts are in part responsible for a decline in the company’s gross profit margin in the third quarter.
“This is a real issue that hurts and scares real people,” Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said.
While flash-mob crimes occur across the country, mall and retail security expert David Levenberg told The Associated Press that places with progressive prosecutors, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, are particularly badly impacted.
“The consequences are minimal, and the profits are substantial,” said Mr. Levenberg, founder of Florida-based Center Security Services.
Ms. Barry said the business is witnessing an uptick in organized theft around the country, but notably in San Francisco, according to an AP story on the call. She stated that the corporation is recruiting security guards and collaborating with vendors on new product staging ideas.
Law enforcement authorities from around California presented measures to resolve the problem on Wednesday, assuring shoppers that it is still safe to purchase.
“These are clearly carefully orchestrated crimes, working together in large groups to create a mob-like mentality,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.
The thieves, she said, are “instilling fear” in retailers, shoppers and the community, which “is especially appalling at a time where many are out and about during the holiday season.”
Ms. O'Malley, who is an independent, and five other Bay Area district attorneys said this week that they are joining forces to combat organized retail theft.
The surge in theft, according to some company owners and police, may be traced back to a law approved by the Democrat-controlled state in 2014 that changed the categorization of some thefts up to $950 from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The increase of organized theft rings is connected to "few repercussions" for nonviolent theft, robbery, and property offenses, according to San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, who spoke to ABC7-TV last week.
“I mean if you are in that business, and that’s what you do for a living, commit crimes, you’re going to probably go toward the crimes that are less likely to have consequences that’s less likely to be caught, particularly when you have 40 or 50 people rushing at one time,” said Mr. Scott, a 33-year police veteran.
Laura Cooper, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, echoed his sentiments in a statement to The Washington Times.
“As we’ve witnessed brazen smash and grabs, consequences are key,” Ms. Cooper said this week. “Without deterrents and accountability, communities will be victimized and businesses terrorized.”
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a Democrat, says nine people are facing felony charges in connection with Friday’s smash-and-grab thefts at a Louis Vuitton store, a cannabis dispensary and a Walgreens.
“I want to be clear about something: these are not petty thefts, Mr. Boudin said this week. “This is not misdemeanor conduct. This is felony conduct and we are charging felonies today.”
However, National Police Association spokeswoman Betsy Brantner Smith expressed caution about Mr. Boudin’s comments.
“Even as … far left prosecutors like Chesa Boudin are starting to ‘talk tough’ when it comes to criminal behavior, it will take many months, and quite possibly years to undo the damage done to our justice system in many areas,” Ms. Brantner Smith, a retired police sergeant, told The Times.
California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, says the latest wave of robberies has hurt him personally. Over the weekend, one of his San Francisco wine businesses was broken into, and its sister store had been broken into three times this year.
“As a small-business owner myself, I am resolved to holding these criminals accountable and protecting our local businesses,” Mr. Newsom said this week.
During the holiday season, the governor stated the California Highway Patrol will enhance its presence near "highly visited" retail businesses, and in his January budget request, he wants to "significantly" increase money for localities to combat organized retail crime.
Local police, legislators, and merchants would be "more forceful" in dealing with the thefts, he said, since "companies and consumers should feel safe while conducting their holiday shopping."
Last Saturday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a Democrat, announced that vehicular access to Union Square, a popular Christmas shopping destination targeted on Friday, would be restricted.
“What happens when people vandalize and commit those level of crimes in San Francisco — we not only lose those businesses, we lose those jobs,” Ms. Breed said, adding that it also impacts tax revenue and social programs.
“We can’t allow that to happen,” she said.
The National Retail Federation, in a report released in August, said the trend unfolding in California is impacting retailers across the country.
“One potential driver behind the increases in robberies and shoplifting incidences is the growth in organized retail crime reported by retailers,” the report states.
About 69% of the 41 retailers surveyed said they saw an increase in organized retail crime activity over the past year.
“They cited reasons such as COVID-19, policing, changes to sentencing guidelines and the growth of online marketplaces,” according to the report.
Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland, Chicago, New York, and Miami were the top five cities for organized retail crimes in the previous year, in that order.
Last week, 14 individuals allegedly stole $120,000 worth of Louis Vuitton products from a store in Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb.