A rash of brazen organized nighttime shoplifting incidents in several U.S. cities during which thieves ransack stores and make off with merchandise is the culmination of a failure to prosecute criminals and the normalization of such behavior, according to experts.
The most recent incident occurred Monday when a mob of at least 20 people smashed windows with a sledgehammer at a Nordstrom department store at The Grove, a popular shopping and entertainment complex in Los Angeles, and stole thousands of dollars in merchandise, police said. At least three suspects have been arrested.
The thefts followed a series of smash-and-grab incidents in the San Francisco area over the weekend, including one where a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek was hit by at least 90 people, some wearing ski masks and armed with crowbars. Three people have been charged in that theft, during which two employees were assaulted and one was pepper-sprayed, authorities said.
A Louis Vitton in San Francisco's Union Square was nearly emptied Friday night as thieves were seen fleeing the high-end retailer with armfuls of expensive merchandise. Nine suspects have been charged in that smash-and-grab. Other stores targeted in the city on the same night included Bloomingdale's, Burberry, Yves Saint Laurent, a Walgreens and cannabis dispensaries, authorities said. All told, at least 12 stores in the city were targeted over the weekend alone.
Across the bay in Oakland, the Wellspring Pharmacy was looted Saturday when dozens of looters wearing black hoodies and masks ransacked shelves and fled with prescription drugs.
In suburban Chicago, 14 suspects stole $100,000 of merchandise from a Louis Vuitton store last week as they grabbed everything they could carry. On Nov. 12, an Ulta Beauty store in nearby Oak Brook, Illinois, was ransacked to the tune of $15,000.
Security experts cited a variety of reasons for the brazen nature of the crimes.
"Not only is it being tolerated because we're seeing it more, but we're seeing there's no prosecution involved in this," Pete Eliadis, a former law enforcement official and CEO of security company Intelligence Consulting Partners, told Fox News. "Law enforcement is not going to engage with that type of element because it's an accepted crime."
On Tuesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced the city will limit car access to Union Square in response to the theft mobs. The Bay Area has been particularly hit hard by retail thieves. The Central District saw a 753% increase in such crimes from May of last year to 2021, according to police data.
In order to disrupt and dismantle the crime rings, elected officials and authorities have to get serious about prosecution, said Betsy Smith, a former Chicago-area law enforcement officer and spokesperson for the National Police Association.
She noted the suspected thieves involved in the Ulta Beauty smash-and-grab in Oak Brook will likely be prosecuted because it sits outside of Cook County, home to Chicago.
"Those guys that did that, they're in jail," Smith said. "The guys who did that stuff didn't realize they crossed the county line into DuPage County … and the DuPage County state's attorney doesn't tolerate that."
The criminal networks have taken a toll on at least one large electronic retailer.
"I think you've probably seen in the media that across retail, we are definitely seeing more and more, particularly organized retail crime and incidence of shrink in our locations. And I think you've heard other retailers talk about it, and we certainly have seen it as well," Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said on the company's third-quarter earnings call Tuesday.
In a separate call, she told reporters the company is seeing an increase in organized theft nationwide, but particularly in San Francisco.
Even before the events of this past weekend, several Bay Area incidents involving thieves went viral and highlighted the growing trend. One involved a man throwing items into a garbage bag and then bicycling out of a Walgreens in front of store staff and security personnel.
In Los Angeles, authorities have warned of a trend of so-called "follow-home" robberies in which suspects have targeted victims in the city's Jewelry District, high-end restaurants and nightclubs. They then follow them home or to isolated areas such as a parking lot and rob them.
Earlier this month, the LAPD said it was investigating 110 such robberies involving at least six different street gangs. On Tuesday, the LAPD announced the creation of a Follow Home Task Force comprised of 20 detectives from its Robbery and Homicide Division to address the crimes.
Some retailers and California elected officials have placed the blame on Proposition 47, a voter-approved measure that downgraded charges of theft under $950 from felonies to misdemeanors.
State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Republican, said he intends to introduce legislation to put the law on the ballot in an effort to repeal it.
"You have people that can go from department store to department store and rob them with impunity," Kiley told Fox News. "It's one of the things that's making California, particularly San Francisco, simply unlivable and unsafe."
The low threshold gives criminal gangs incentive to keep committing crimes without fear of prosecution, Kiley said. Earlier this month, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced charges against a "prolific retail thief" for 120 incidents involving the theft of more than $40,000 worth of merchandise from one Target store over the course of a year.
Whatever the cause of the uptick in theft, experts agree the COVID-19 pandemic isn't to blame.
"That's so silly," Smith said. "[Chicago Mayor] Lori Lightfoot is still hanging onto that. She blames every crime in Chicago on the pandemic."
"When we were locked down during the eye of the pandemic, I felt no great need to go steal from my local Ulta or Louis Vuitton store," she added.
Aside from the cost of doing business, the consequences of large-scale retail theft can impact communities. Walgreens announced in October that it planned to shutter at least five San Francisco locations in response to rampant theft.
"If you own a store and your store keeps getting looted, and you know there's not going to be a return on the prosecution end, why would you reinvest in that community?" Eliadis said.