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Heist for the holidays

Organized theft is pummeling California retailers, and some blame the state’s policies

A security guard stands outside a Nordstrom store in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Associated Press/Photo by Eugene Garcia

Heist for the holidays

California retailers are headed into the annual holiday shopping rush this week, but this year, they are doing so under increased threats from mobs of thieves. Last weekend, groups of looters swarmed Bay Area shopping malls, racing into stores, smashing glass, and grabbing merchandise. City officials pledged to hold the thieves accountable, but experts say lax laws and policies are standing in the way.

On Friday night around 8 p.m., thieves broke into several stores in Union Square, a shopping area in San Francisco. Witness videos showed thieves grabbing handbags and armfuls of clothing from a Louis Vuitton store. The next day, 80 people wearing ski masks or hoods broke into a Nordstrom in nearby Walnut Creek just before 9 p.m. They dumped clothes and luggage into 25 getaway cars waiting outside and fled. Police arrested three people, but most got away. Sunday night, looters broke into a jewelry store in a mall in Hayward, also in the Bay Area.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told reporters that officers arrested eight people for the Friday night thefts. “It was concerted,” he said. “Their plan was to overwhelm us.”

The Friday night looting involved at least 10 stores and more than $1 million of stolen merchandise. In the Nordstrom incident on Saturday, looters attacked two employees and pepper-sprayed another after blocking the street with their getaway cars. On Sunday, Walnut Creek police tweeted a community advisory warning of intelligence that the same thieves were considering another hit that day. Police in Hayward received calls just before 5:30 p.m. that evening about robbers at Southland Mall. Local media reported the first wave of robbers included 30 to 40 minors, and a second wave of robbers followed. Video shows several youth in hoodies and masks breaking a case at Sam’s Jewelers and running away with items. On Monday night, about 20 looters tried to rob a Nordstrom in Los Angeles. They smashed a window with a sledgehammer and managed to grab several items before police arrived, Deadline reported.

Joseph Giacalone is a retired detective sergeant from the New York Police Department. He said he has never seen retail theft that bad before, and he expects it to spread.

“It won’t stop,” he said. “There’s zero deterrents. There’s no fear of any prosecution. … It’s going to be an epidemic going forward, and there isn’t going to be enough law enforcement to even cover these things.” Giacalone said he doesn’t expect voters to support different candidates until they have been victims of these types of crimes themselves.

Many retailers have policies against chasing shoplifters for liability reasons, and the state will only press felony charges against thieves who stole $950 worth of merchandise or more. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for drug possession and shoplifting under $950, among other things. The goal was to reduce incarceration for nonviolent offenders and shift the funds saved from jail costs to drug treatment and mental health programs.

Criminal recidivism and jail bookings have decreased since Proposition 47 took effect, but thefts have gone up, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In May, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that organized crime and shoplifting had prompted Walgreens to close 17 locations in five years. “If retail frontline workers don’t feel safe, if shoppers don’t feel safe, stores will ultimately shut down. If stores shut down, we lose sales tax,” District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai told ABC news.

In San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin took office last year and implemented his campaign promise of moving toward decarceration. Pretrial detention decreased after Boudin instructed prosecutors not to request bail money, and he has led the DA office to use diversion programs instead of incarceration as often as possible. Boudin denies any connection between his policies and the rising crime, but organizers in recent weeks used public safety concerns to collect enough signatures to put the district attorney to a recall vote next year. Over the summer, viral videos showed masked thieves carrying merchandise out of a downtown department store, and another showed a man toting a trash bag of stolen goods out of a drug store on his bicycle.

This past summer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law allowing prosecutors to charge organized retail theft as a misdemeanor or a felony. In September, San Francisco officials promised to deal with the rising theft by increasing police foot patrols and making it easier for witnesses to report the crime. But as Chief Scott told reporters, “When they see these things go viral, the perception of lawlessness, the perception that anything goes—that has to be overcome, too.”

Giacalone said policies like Boudin’s will continue enabling this type of behavior: “If criminals don’t fear being prosecuted and going to jail, what’s stopping this kind of behavior? Nothing.”

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.


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