Amid fraught discussions over the future of policing in major American cities, a series of mass thefts at high-end stores across California have made headlines nationwide.
The incidents have drawn widespread coverage linking them to “organized crime” and spotlighting concerns from retailers about a theft crisis. They also reinvigorated a political debate over crime rates in California, prompting pledges from local and state leaders to charge those involved and increase police presence in affected areas. Meanwhile, conservatives and some local leaders have pointed to the incidents as evidence that criminal justice reform and progressive policies are encouraging crime and making California more dangerous.
But despite their high profile nature, experts say there is little evidence to suggest the robberies point to a wider retail theft crisis, and that some law enforcement and industry groups are overstating the problem.
Here’s what we know so far.
Last month in San Francisco’s downtown and the posh Union Square shopping district, groups broke into Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Bloomingdale’s at the height of the holiday shopping season. In suburban Walnut Creek, about 80 people, some wearing ski masks and carrying crowbars, grabbed armfuls of merchandise from a Nordstrom and fled to waiting cars in what police called a “planned event”, and a similar incident occurred at a mall in the nearby city of Hayward. In Los Angeles, more than $330,000 in goods were stolen in 11 “smash and grab” incidents over about two weeks.
In California in 2020, when Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions were at their harshest, the rates of robbery and larceny theft – which includes shoplifting – decreased from their 2019 totals by 14% and 15% respectively, according to California’s attorney general. Meanwhile, homicides went up by 31% and car thefts increased by 20%.
And in the two cities at the center of this upheaval robberies haven’t spiked at the levels suggested by news reports and statements from police and officials.
In San Francisco, larceny, the category that shoplifting falls under, appears to have decreased from 2019 to 2020, bringing the overall property crime rate down with it, according to the San Francisco police department’s crime dashboard. The decrease in shoplifting appears to be continuing in 2021.
In 2021, property crime in Los Angeles was up 2.6% from 2020 but down 6.6% from 2019, according to LAPD figures from 27 November published in the LA Times. The category that includes shoplifting – “personal/other theft”, per LAPD – is down 32% from 2019.
While news headlines and press releases from police and retailers have emphasized that retail thefts were linked to “organized crime”, experts said authorities lacked a consistent definition, making the situation difficult to assess.
Under California law, “organized retail theft” can be prosecuted if an individual works with at least one other person to steal with the intent to sell. As one state prosecutor explained, that could refer to two people walking into a store to shoplift together; a “flash mob” that is loosely organized on social media; or a more sophisticated network specializing in reselling stolen goods.
In some high-profile cases, authorities have said there was evidence of coordination. The state attorney general announced earlier this month that five defendants had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit organized retail theft after officials seized roughly $8m in stolen merchandise from CVS, Target and other major retailers. While a majority of respondents in a recent national retail trade association survey claimed that “organized retail crime” had increased over the last year, there isn’t clear research data to substantiate that claim in California, experts said.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle analysis concluded that the local data is “woefully inadequate”, finding that one reported “spike” in shoplifting came from a single store that was using a new reporting system. And an LA Times investigation found that a California retail association dramatically overstated the possible losses from “organized crime” and when pressed for an explanation, said “there’s no way of knowing exactly” how much businesses lose from thefts.
“Organized retail theft crimes are not new. This is something we’ve seen for years nationwide,” said Rachel Marshall, communications director for the San Francisco district attorney. “What seems to be new is the virality of the videos. But everyone deserves to feel safe in the city, and we take seriously the fears that the viral videos generate.”
Thus far, the immediate response to the shoplifting in San Francisco and Los Angeles has been led by law enforcement.
In late September, the mayor, along with the San Francisco police chief, unveiled the organized retail theft investigation and deterrence strategy. The initiative will expand the city’s retail crime unit from two to five officers. The city will also triple the number of unarmed community ambassadors, from eight to 25.
This move came after months of scrutiny driven by people breaking into cars near tourist hubs such as Fisherman’s Wharf and shoplifting attempts at Walgreens locations in the city, including one that appeared to show a man riding his bike out of a store with a trash bag filled with stolen items. That suspect was arrested and charged.
To critics of California’s leaders, store closures and reports of mass thefts seemed to confirm the narrative that California is a lawless place where officials turn a blind eye to crime, to the detriment of local commerce.
Political leaders have pushed for more police, particularly in high-traffic areas. Gavin Newsom, the state’s governor, has called for California’s highway patrol to increase their presence and doubled down on his Organized Retail Crime Task Force, a collaboration between police and prosecutors which was established in July.
And London Breed, mayor of San Francisco, recently made headlines after announcing a plan to inundate the city’s long-troubled Tenderloin District with police in an attempt to address open-air drug dealing and catch people who may be selling stolen goods in the neighborhood.
Republican leaders and some law enforcement representatives in the state have blamed the spate of recent offenses on the state’s criminal justice reforms, which have aimed to curb mass incarceration. Some have cited Prop 47, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2014, which reduced penalties for certain non-violent and low-level offenses, with the Sacramento district attorney saying: “There’s no consequences any more to theft.”
Fact checkers and criminologists, however, have said it is false to suggest there were no consequences to theft and that there was no research-based evidence linking retail thefts in the state this year to reform measures. Prop 47 did not eliminate punishments for thefts, but directed that thefts under $950 be prosecuted as misdemeanors, not felonies (the previous threshold for felonies was $400). California’s laws also remain harsher than the majority of states, which dictate amounts higher than $950 for thefts to be classified as felonies.
“There are a lot of unknowns about what’s behind the smash-and-grabs and robberies, but I’m quite confident that this is not the result of Prop 47, specifically, or criminal justice reforms more generally,” said Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, whose 2018 study found that Prop 47 was not responsible for an uptick in crimes. She noted that there were other states without Prop 47 seeing similar smash and grab cases, and also pointed out that it would be difficult to prove that a 2021 trend was the result of a law passed seven years prior.
While some have also accused progressive prosecutors in LA and San Francisco of not taking these crimes seriously, advocates have noted that high-profile smash and grab cases and retail thefts had occurred in both cities before the current DAs were elected. In San Francisco, data also shows that prosecutors have filed charges for the vast majority of commercial burglary cases that police have presented to the DA this year. And in LA, advocates noted that property crime is down compared to the 2019, when the previous DA was in office.