California smash-and-grabs blamed on decriminalization of theft

The organized criminal ransacking of stores in California, a state where Democratic lawmakers have dramatically reduced penalties for shoplifting, is part of a nationwide epidemic that retailers say is adding to costs.  

Just days after high-end stores in the San Francisco Bay Area were targeted, a group of about 20 thieves smashed windows and looted a Nordstrom department store in Los Angeles on Monday night, prompting vows from state and local officials that order would be restored in time for the upcoming holiday shopping season.  

Los Angeles Police arrested three suspects in the smash-and-grab there and promised beefed-up patrols around high-end stores citywide ahead of the Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend.

The incident in Los Angeles came on the heels of similarly brazen organized thefts days earlier in Beverly Hills, in San Francisco, including the looting of a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek by 80 masked thieves, some wielding crowbars, and in San Jose, where a Lululemon store was ransacked by a mob of 40 thieves.

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. 

Mall and retail security expert David Levenberg told The Associated Press that while the flash-mob crimes are happening everywhere, it’s the cities with progressive prosecutors — like Los Angeles and San Francisco — that are especially hard hit.

“The consequences are minimal, and the profits are substantial,” said Mr. Levenberg, founder of Florida-based Center Security Services.

According to an AP report on the call, Ms. Barry said the company is seeing organized theft increase across the country, but particularly in San Francisco. She said the company is hiring security guards and working with its vendors on creative ways to stage products.

On Wednesday, law enforcement officials across California outlined plans to address the crisis and reassure consumers it’s still safe to go shopping.

“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, an independent, and five other district attorneys in the Bay Area said this week that they are forming an alliance against organized retail theft.

Some business owners and police say the rise in theft can be traced back to a law the Democrat-controlled state passed in 2014 that reduced the classification of some thefts up to $950 from a felony to a misdemeanor.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told ABC7-TV this week that the growth of the organized theft rings are linked to the fact that there are “less consequences” for nonviolent theft, robbery and property crimes.

“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 Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, says he has personally been affected by the recent string of thefts. One of the wine stores he owns in San Francisco was broken into over the weekend and its sister store has 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.

The governor said the California Highway Patrol will increase its presence near “highly trafficked” retail stores through the holiday season and that he plans to “substantially” increase funding for cities to address organized retail crime in his January budget proposal.

He added that local police, lawmakers and retailers are going to be “more aggressive” in addressing the thefts because “businesses and customers should feel safe while doing their holiday shopping.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a Democrat, said last weekend that the city will be limiting vehicular access to Union Square, the popular holiday shopping spot targeted on Friday.

“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.

The top five cities for organized retail crimes in the past year in order were Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland, Chicago, New York and Miami. 

Last week, 14 suspects reportedly took $120,000 in merchandise out of a Louis Vuitton store in Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.