Over the course of several hours on Friday night, at least 30 people robbed several of San Francisco’s most upscale stores, prosecutors said, in what law enforcement officials called one of the most brutal burglaries in recent memory.
The next day, hours after officials vowed to prosecute the thieves and prevent another major robbery, dozens of people broke into a Nordstrom store in the California suburb of Walnut Creek, 40 miles to the east. They grabbed clothes, jackets and handbags and fled in a caravan of waiting vehicles, police said.
This month, near Chicago, around the Bay Area and in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, a series of high-speed, high-profile robberies has taken place for eight days that have alarmed businesses, bystanders and some state and local officials, who have promised to take firm action against the crimes.
“We need to make an example of these people,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said at a news conference Monday. “They don’t just steal people’s products and affect their livelihoods. They steal a sense of place and trust, which is why you have to take it seriously.”
It is unclear whether the robberies were connected. Surveillance images and videos of cellphones shared online showing people grabbing and running with merchandise indicated that they diverged widely. A theft in Northern California involved three people, while the Walnut Creek robbery involved as many as 80 people. according to the police.
As far as there were patterns in the break-ins, law enforcement officials said, groups of at least three people each were involved, mostly with getaway cars nearby and apparently with little fear of being seen by store cameras or bystanders.
Data on how common these types of crimes are is not readily available from two leading retail trade groups, and local law enforcement agencies have not shared their data publicly.
A San Francisco Police Department spokesman said that because the investigation was still ongoing, he would not say what evidence authorities had gathered to link Friday night’s break-ins.
The stores affected in San Francisco on Friday included Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Bloomingdale’s, Yves Saint Laurent, Walgreens, Fendi, Hermes, Armani and several cannabis dispensaries.
“It was their plan to overwhelm us,” San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said at a news conference the following morning. “We will do what we need to do to put an end to this madness.” On Monday, he told ABC7-TV that the break-ins were “organized to some extent.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed said the city would increase police presence and restrict vehicular access in the Union Square shopping district. Chief Scott said at least six men and two women have been arrested in connection with several burglaries.
District attorney Chesa Boudin, who faces a recall next year and whose critics have accused him of being too lenient on crime, said Wednesday he had filed charges against those arrested. “These are not petty thefts,” he told a news conference. “This is a crime.”
Hours after San Francisco leaders promised a harsh response on Saturday, the break-in occurred at the Nordstrom in Walnut Creek. There, just before 9 p.m., about 80 people burst into the store, grabbed clothing, jackets and handbags, and fled in more than two dozen cars waiting outside, police said.
Video from bystanders posted to Twitter shows people in hooded sweatshirts and face masks running down the street, carrying bags and armloads of merchandise.
Three people were arrested, one of whom had a firearm, Walnut Creek Police said. Over the next two days, a California jewelry store in Hayward, a Lululemon in San Jose, a Louis Vuitton in Beverly Hills and a Nordstrom in Los Angeles were also broken into by groups of at least three people, according to police and local news. reports.
On Nov. 15, nine people smashed display cases with hammers and took thousands of dollars worth of jewelry from a store in Concord, California, police said.
On Nov. 17, three people stole merchandise from a jewelry store in a mall in Fairfield, California, about 27 miles north of Concord, police said. Police said they later arrested three people and recovered about $50,000 worth of stolen property.
The same day in Oak Brook, Illinois, near Chicago, 14 people seized about $120,000 worth of merchandise and escaped in three vehicles waiting nearby, police said.
Several Nordstrom employees at Walnut Creek were treated for minor injuries, the company said in a statement.
Retail advocates and loss prevention experts said several factors could be behind the recent break-ins, including the proliferation of online marketplaces where unauthenticated sellers can quickly sell or “foreclose” stolen goods.
“If you close the gates, what are these people going to do with all the merchandise they steal?” said Lisa LaBruno, an executive with the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade association.
Richard Hollinger, a retired professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville who has researched shoplifting, said the accessibility of products in stores was another factor.
Retailers “want to make the merchandise as visible as possible,” he said, “but now it’s easier to get hold of.” While these types of crimes happen year-round, they tend to get more attention during the Christmas shopping season, he said.
Estimates vary widely for how much money retailers lose due to “organized retail crime” — a broad-definition industry term that includes employee robberies and thefts.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which advocates on behalf of retailers, said this month that organized retail crime cost businesses nearly $69 billion in 2019. The National Retail Federation said organized retail crime cost retailers more than $700,000 per $1 billion in sales last year, up from $450,000 in 2015.
At a conference in Florida last week hosted by the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, a nonprofit that encourages agency-business collaboration, experts estimated the figure at about $30 billion, according to Jacques Brittain, the editor of Loss Prevention Magazine. .
While retail attorneys recognized that “organized retail crime” included a variety of crimes, they distinguished it from shoplifting.
Barbara C. Staib, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, a nonprofit organization, said the distinction was in the number of people involved and their motivations.
Shoplifting is “an opportunistic crime,” usually committed by one person, she said. “It’s not about an organized group of people going into a store and looting.”
Mr Brittain of Loss Prevention Magazine said people shoplift primarily for personal use — stealing a shirt, for example, to wear or sell it for quick cash. People involved in organized retail crime, he said, have “turned it into a business”.