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Smash-and-grab squads: How US looting rings organize online as police are defunded

It looked like chaos when groups of young people dashed from cars into the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco’s Union Square and ran off with luxury purses, bags, and designer wear.

A few days later, about 80 people stormed through a Walnut Creek mall, stealing expensive items before fleeing. At L.A.’s Grove shopping mall not long after, a smaller group used sledgehammers on a Nordstrom.

But California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said the group crimes are rooted in a kind of organized crime. Those dashing into the stores are mostly foot soldiers for others calling the shots from a safe distance.

So begins an LA Times story about events that are happening around the US that are being called “smash-and-grabs.”

According to Bonta, these are not independent looters but organized criminals, coordinated by crime bosses through social media where the “foot soldiers” are guided to the most profitable and vulnerable stores and the most easily fenced and profitable products.

Bonta says it is going to take a new “organized strategy” to stop such organized criminal activity, but many critics are saying that such a strategy once existed in the form of something called “police departments” that have been defunded in places like LA. Bonta, himself, helped organize the “police the police” movement in California.

Appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom in April 2021, Bonta was noted by Politico as having “routinely been at odds with law enforcement.” He was celebrated as a “groundbreaking pick” by those in California who wanted to defund police departments back in 2020. During his tenure, many criminals have been given “get-out-of-jail-free” cards to reduce prison populations during the pandemic, while “jail-or-bail” was also eliminated for suspects awaiting trial.

Last spring, Politico stated, “Bonta enters as one of the nation’s most liberal attorneys general and has repeatedly spoken about a lack of trust between law enforcement and the communities they police. His ascension comes as reform-minded prosecutors have come to power around California and the country and ignited a fierce battle with… law enforcement. Bonta is allied with those prosecutors.”

Snap and grab

According to police, the most popular app used to organize flash mobs for “smash-and-grab” raids is Snapchat, though Snap Inc. says they have found no evidence that their app is being used for that purpose, and promoting harm via Snapchat would be a violation of its terms of service.

As noted in the video, these criminals have obvious experience getting in and out, including, the video suggests, recent experience getting out of jail free en masse only to go on to commit mass crimes.

An example of the tightness of the organization of these crimes is how the 80+ people who overran the Nordstrom store and a mall in the Bay Area stole a hundred grand in merchandise and escaped within one minute, using 25 different cars with license plates that were covered or removed. Twenty to 40 people were involved in the Louis Vuitton incident, though only five were arrested.

This isn’t ‘The Godfather’ by any stretch,” said Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County, California district attorney tackling organized retail theft. “It’s the modern version of ‘Hey, there’s a party tonight’ and suddenly you have 100 kids showing up.

An attorney representing one of the suspects said, “This isn’t like an organized thing where everyone knows each other.

The way it works is that,  someone posts a target and a time on social media. Then a flash mob of loosely organized thieves shows up to steal the loot. Beyond that, officials are keeping details about how the criminals find each other on social media quiet so as not to help others join the mobs. The law-enforcement officer who pointed out the use of Snapchat did speculate that some who use it for their crimes may favor that app because its posts disappear for good within seconds.

Similar crime sprees have been happening in the defunded cities of Chicago and Minneapolis, and Bay Area police say crimes of this type first emerged during the Minneapolis George Floyd riots when 70 new cars were stolen from a San Leandro, California Dodge dealership on May 31, 2020. 

Law enforcement is now keeping a much more watchful eye on social media.

Some liberal Democrats have changed their mind on defunding, and now accept that it – and letting prisoners out early – has helped fuel crime. But other prominent politicians don’t even believe these kinds of crimes are happening.

The San Francisco crime scene

San Francisco Mayor London Breed is one of those Democrats finally getting the connection between these smash-and-grabs and defunding police departments and recently put the message in no uncertain terms:

Breed is one of several liberal city mayors finally addressing the elephant in the progressive room, although it did take eighteen months of skyrocketing crime in this “sanctuary city” to get her there.

San Francisco’s Public Policy Institute of California reports that crime in that city is up 17% in 2021, particularly homicides and property crime. That is, however, only a return to pre-pandemic levels, because 2020 saw a drop in crime statistics in California’s largest cities. The abnormality of the pandemic and the riots of 2020 in some of these big cities (which should have shot statistics up), alongside the choice not to prosecute many crimes during those riots and even not to arrest (which should have brought statistics down), all make it difficult to learn anything solid from these numbers.

However, Fox News in San Diego, one of the cities described in these statistics, notes the odd alignment of opinion in California that has formed between conservatives and liberal politicians like Breed who are facing angry citizens, indicating the statistics alone are not telling the full story of how bad things are:

Conservative voices in the state have been quick to argue that criminal justice reforms that reduced penalties for certain offenses have emboldened criminals. California’s left-leaning Democrats have also toughened their rhetoric around recent brazen retail thefts.

Video from a looted Louis Vuitton store showed criminals casually walking out with their stolen merchandise. Also belying the statistics, stores in San Francisco’s Union Square have boarded up their display windows, potentially damaging as that may be to sales.

Medical statistics may tell the story of the city’s degradation better than distorted crime numbers: its rampaging drug scene brought three times more deaths last year than Covid-19.

The transformation of a few liberal politicians, like Breed, has not gone unnoticed by citizens who identify as liberals.

After the looting of Louis Vuitton, even San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, who had called for “open-air drug use and drug sales” in the city on the basis that drugs are a “victimless crime,” was forced to say, “I’m outraged by the looting in Union Square last night…We are seeing similar crimes across the country.

However, one of the reasons California crime stats dropped was that crimes like drug use were virtually decriminalized by people like Boudin, while crimes like theft saw the bar raised on the value of merchandise stolen to be considered a crime.

Fox News reported: “A 2014 referendum, Prop 47, raised the dollar amount for how much merchandise had to be stolen… for shoplifting to be considered a felony. After Prop 47 passed, theft of commercial merchandise under $950 became only a misdemeanor…. Critics of the proposition argue the lack of consequences gives thieves an incentive to steal.

The same critics have also complained district attorney Boudin has turned a blind eye to prosecuting retail shoplifters.

The LA Times explained: “The rash of crimes has generated debates not only over how to combat them but over criminal justice reforms that California has undertaken, which some police officials blame for an increase in some crimes….

“Responding to criticism that social justice reforms including Proposition 47 have fueled shoplifting by reducing its consequences, Bonta said these crimes are organized thefts that are felonies and that in the smash and grab incidents the suspects blew through the $950 threshold for a felony in a few seconds.”

Dallas defunded and refunded

The same trend has happened in other large US cities, as the New York Times has reported: “’Defund! Reclaim! Reinvest!’ about two dozen people called out from the darkened Dallas street. A few weeks later, the police chief resigned over her handling of large-scale protests. Then the City Council voted to cut how much money the department could use on overtime and hiring new officers.

A year on from all that, where are these cities at now? Simply put, having seen the resulting spikes in crime, the money is returning:

In cities across America, police departments are getting their money back. From New York to Los Angeles, departments that saw their funding targeted amid nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd last year have watched as local leaders voted for increases in police spending, with an additional $200 million allocated to the New York Police Department and a 3 percent boost given to the Los Angeles force.

In many cases, the same leaders who voted to remove funding are rushing to replace it. In others, the leaders who made the cuts have themselves been replaced.

The abrupt reversals have come in response to rising levels of crime in major cities last year, the exodus of officers from departments large and small and political pressures. After slashing police spending last year, Austin restored the department’s budget and raised it to new heights.

Likewise in Dallas, where the contrast between then and now could not be starker.

“[Democratic Mayor Eric] Johnson not only proposed to restore money to the department but moved to increase the number of officers on the street, writing over the summer that ‘Dallas needs more police officers.

‘Dallas stands out for the amount of investment that the local government is putting into the department,’ said Laura Cooper, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

The NYT notes that no protests followed the Dallas government’s rapid shift to not only to restore but to increase police funding.

To combat a 25% increase in homicides, Dallas also chose to go back to an old-school approach that worked, known as “hot spot” policing. If statistics can be trusted, it’s working once again, with violent crime already back down 6%. Hot-spot policing has often been accused as being racist because it focuses on areas experiencing the most crime, which frequently overlap with majority black neighborhoods, but Dallas’s mayor disagrees:

As an African American male who came of age in the 1990s, I remember a lot of people whose lives were devastated by violence,” Mr Johnson said in an interview. “I don’t want to go back there.

The rich, once anti-guns, are now arming themselves

A crime wave sparked by defunding around Beverly Hills has resulted in the area’s traditionally anti-gun residents deciding to arm themselves after all:

I’ve always been anti-gun,’ said Debbie Mizrahie of Beverly Hills. ‘But I am right now in the process of getting myself shooting lessons because I now understand that there may be a need for me to know how to defend myself and my family. We’re living in fear…. Beverly Hills has been targeted.’

After her neighbor’s home was firebombed with Molotov cocktails, Mizrahie and her neighbors decided to arm up… at least until the police could arrive back in their precincts.

It’s gotten to a point where residents feel insecure even going from their door to their car,’ another resident, Shirley Reitman, said. “A lot of residents are applying for a concealed carry weapon permit, even though that’s a great challenge in LA County.”

In fact, applications for concealed carry permits at the LA County Sheriff’s Department have skyrocketed, with approved applications having gone up more than 1,000%.

Even hardcore leftist Democrats who said to me in the past, ‘I’ll never own a gun’, are calling me asking about firearms,” Joel Glucksman, a private security executive, told a reporter. The trend has since increased after a well-known black philanthropist, Jacqueline Avant, 81, was murdered in a home robbery.

I don’t ever remember crime being so high,” an entertainment writer, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “We used to leave our doors unlocked. I would leave my keys in the car with the door unlocked. Not anymore. We’re seeing not just burglaries but also robberies. We are seeing emboldened gang members and criminals holding guns to people’s heads…. People are afraid to wear their wedding band. They’re afraid to wear a watch. They’re afraid to carry not just an expensive bag but any name-brand bag.

It is apparently easier to stand against the right to own guns to defend yourselves when the people needing defending are not you and your neighbors.

‘My industry is filled with progressives who have the luxury of being idealists and espousing philosophies they thought would never come back and bite them,’ said the entertainment writer, who is in her early 60s. ‘There’s a shift now that it’s become so much more dangerous.’

Beverly Hill residents are paying private security firms to make up for the lack of police and to help with self-defense.

The understaffed Beverly Hills police department is now hiring five new officers, but that will not make up for the 500 the surrounding LAPD is down since it was defunded, although, there too, this cut has quickly been reversed.

Beverly Hills has hired its own force, run by private security executive Bryce Eddy, to combat the adjacent big city’s crime spillover.

The police were overwhelmed,” said Eddy. “In October 2020, we were out there with 22 vehicles and 40 armed guys per shift… 80 armed guys a day. We reduced crime by almost 40 percent. They kept us on until January. After we left, crime spiked back up 90 percent.

Eddy and his men are now back on the streets, while there is a bipartisan recall campaign underway to remove LA’s District Attorney Boudin, who championed the cut of $150 million to the police department’s budget. The defund the cops campaign has been a painful lesson for a lot of people, and the ramifications are not over yet.

© 2022, paradox. All rights reserved.

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