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‘Smash-and-grab’ mobs mark latest city crime wave


What’s behind the dangerous trend?

Flash mob robberies and crime throughout the country have been on the rise for the past two years. However, they are becoming a regular occurrence throughout California. By mid-summer of 2023 there was a rise in so-called ‘smash-and-grab” robberies. A flash mob robbery is defined by Wikipedia as an organized form of theft in which a group of participants enter a retail or convenience store en masse and steal goods. The record number of flash mob robberies in California are causing concern both for store and restaurant owners and customers alike. Law enforcement has alerted retailers to be more careful when preparing for huge holiday blowout sales this upcoming year. 

Groups of suspects will oftentimes swarm into a store using bear spray, pepper spray, and sometimes tools to open up glass cases. For instance, on Nov. 19, Los Angeles Police Department officers responded to the 9800 block of South Alameda Street at around 6 p.m. to a report of a flash mob robbery. The robbery took place at a Nike store in Watts resulting in a reported $12,000 worth of merchandise (i.e. boxes of shoes and clothing) being stolen. 

A similar outbreak of flash mob robberies took place during the course of the past two years, at retail stores such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry in Riverside County, Bloomingdale's, a YSL store in Glendale, Macy's in Sherman Oaks, and a Nordstrom at the Westfield Topanga Mall. The robberies mirrored a similar problem faced now (i.e. lack of police presence in targeted areas.) 

In addition to large retail stores, restaurants have now become targets for "smash and grab" robberies. Groups of thieves seem to now be targeting restaurants throughout Los Angeles creating risk for both customers and employees. Restaurants in Sherman Oaks have been robbed up to seven times since last December. Additionally, local restaurants like Marmalade Cafe, Fu's Palace, and Jar have faced flash mob robberies as well. Safety is a concern for employees working in both restaurants and retail stores, as they would like to see the LAPD do more in terms of protecting the restaurants from this type of crime. Los Angeles Police Department officials say there needs to be more officers to handle these types of crimes. More officers and protection are needed when there are violent tactics used in committing flash mob robberies. 

Oftentimes large convenience stores are targeted for their long hours, large inventory and small amount of security. Additionally, determining factors in terms of where to rob from include; items that can be resold and stores that have high-end goods. Flash mob robberies are effective because there are so many people all stealing at one time it's almost impossible for one or two employees to catch all of the thieves. The thefts also occur quite quickly and are over by the time that law enforcement arrives. 

Flash mob robberies have become so frequent that there are now measures being put in place to prevent more robberies in the future. New procedures are now being put in place to potentially stop the ongoing robberies. These procedures include hiring more in-store security, locking up merchandise, reducing the amount of access points for thieves, and limiting the amount of customers allowed in at one time. Gov. Gavin Newsom formed the Organized Retail Crime Task Force (ORCTF) in 2019, and the 2023-2024 budget is making room for more than $800 million in grants to sheriff and police departments for programs that will focus on retail crime. 

"When criminals run out of stores with stolen goods, they need to be arrested and escorted directly into jail cells,” Newsom said. Members of the California Highway Patrol are working around the clock to keep shoppers, merchants, and retail districts safer this holiday season.

"The men and women of the California Highway Patrol are working around the clock to keep shoppers, merchants and retail districts safe this holiday season --and year round," said CHP Commissioner Sean Duryee. "Much of our task force's success can be attributed to the strong working relationships we have with our law enforcement partners throughout the state and the rapport we have cultivated with the retail industry. Working together with our partners and utilizing the CHP's extensive statewide resources, we are cracking down and stopping unacceptable criminal activity."

Individuals participating in flash mob robberies can face various charges such as burglary, or disorderly conduct. A "shrink" (loss in retail) survey provided by the NRF (National Retail Federation) demonstrated that there was up to $112.1 billion lost in 2022, which is 20% higher than the previous year. Flash mobs accounted for 36% of the loss.

The additional law enforcement presence across California is an effort to keep shoppers and merchants safe while catching retail criminals in the act. To help reduce the amount of retail crime that occurs during the holiday shopping season, the CHP’s ORCTF has teams in Southern California, the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento who are collaborating with retailers, loss prevention and local law enforcement agencies. Additionally, several other proactive and confidential law enforcement operations are being conducted with allied agencies statewide, thereby allowing investigators to aggressively take down known so-called “boosters” and fencing operations linked to organized retail crime.