Thieves cap­i­tal­ize on all the chaos

Ex­perts call brazen break-ins sweep­ing coun­try strate­gic

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Daisy Nguyen and Michael Tarm

OAK­LAND, Calif. — Po­lice in a small San Fran­cisco Bay Area com­mu­nity were about to help au­thor­i­ties in neigh­bor­ing Oak­land keep the peace dur­ing a protest when a more press­ing cri­sis hit home: Groups of thieves were pil­lag­ing malls, set­ting fire to a Wal­mart and storm­ing a car deal­er­ship.

By the time San Le­an­dro of­fi­cers ar­rived at the Dodge deal­er­ship, dozens of cars were gone and thieves were peel­ing out of the lot in $100,000 Chal­lenger Hell­cat mus­cle cars. Nearly 75 ve­hi­cles were stolen Sun­day, in­clud­ing mod­els driven through glass show­room doors to es­cape.

“It was very strate­gic,” Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sher­iff’s Of­fice said about the auto thefts.

The brazen heist, car­ried out by well-co­or­di­nated crim­i­nals, was one of many thefts na­tion­wide in the last week at big-box elec­tron­ics stores, jew­elry shops and lux­ury de­sign­ers.

Many of the smash-and­grab thefts have hap­pened dur­ing or fol­low­ing protests over the May 25 death of Ge­orge Floyd, who strug­gled to breathe as his neck was pinned down by a white Min­neapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cer’s knee.

Car­a­vans of bur­glars have cap­i­tal­ized on chaos, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other via mes­sag­ing apps dur­ing heists and us­ing the protests and other tac­tics to throw po­lice off their trail.

While op­por­tunists have some­times joined the frenzy, po­lice and ex­perts say there is a so­phis­ti­ca­tion that sug­gests a level of plan­ning that goes be­yond spon­ta­neous acts.

It’s hardly the first time le­git­i­mate protest has been used as a cover for crime.

But crime ex­perts note the scale of the thefts, which have taken place na­tion­wide, in big and small cities and in sub­urbs.

“I’ve been a stu­dent of these things. And I have never seen any­thing like it,” said Neil Sul­li­van, a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized ex­pert on mass-events se­cu­rity and re­tired Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment com­man­der.

Peo­ple who stole dur­ing civil rights protests in the 1960s, he said, tended to be in­di­vid­u­als who saw crimes of op­por­tu­nity as demon­stra­tions spun out of con­trol. By con­trast, many of the break-ins that have hap­pened the last week ap­pear to be metic­u­lously planned and co­or­di­nated, he said.

One of the first of these crimes un­folded May 30 in Emeryville, a tiny city of re­tail shop­ping centers next to Oak­land, when a crowd showed up and broke into stores af­ter an In­sta­gram post said they would “hit” the Tar­get and “break ev­ery stores” (sic).

“This wasn’t the mafia and or­ga­nized crime, but this wasn’t in­di­vid­u­als act­ing alone,” said Mayor Chris­tian Patz. “There def­i­nitely was some or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

In New York, Gov. An­drew Cuomo said this week that some peo­ple steal­ing from stores were us­ing en­crypted mes­sag­ing to com­mu­ni­cate and posted look­outs to warn if po­lice were com­ing.

In the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia city of Long Beach, groups of thieves hit store af­ter store May 31 as marchers demon­strated nearby. Mayor Robert Gar­cia said they went “from protest to protest” so they had cover to steal.

Po­lice in Los An­ge­les, which had wide­spread bur­glar­ies for sev­eral days, said the crimes didn’t oc­cur un­til a third night of protests and shifted from thieves on foot to those in cars able to haul more off.

The ar­rival of more than 1,000 Na­tional Guard troops in Los An­ge­les County to pro­vide se­cu­rity freed up of­fi­cers ag­gres­sively try crimes.

Sher­iff Alex Vil­lanueva said his de­part­ment was able to thwart “a very sig­nif­i­cant op­er­a­tion to sack” a large out­let mall in the nearby City of Com­merce. Dozens were ar­rested. “They were there for only one pur­pose and that was to loot,” he said.

In the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, tweets warn­ing of loot­ing and ri­ot­ing turned out to be false, though they led some busi­nesses to close and may have been at­tempts to di­vert po­lice else­where. Rich­mond po­lice tweeted that a bo­gus ru­mor on so­cial me­dia of an of­fi­cer be­ing shot oc­curred around the time a pot shop was ran­sacked.

Groups of thieves struck a se­ries of big-box stores on Chicago’s South Side on Sun­day while pe­ri­od­i­cally call­ing 911 to falsely re­port that a mall sev­eral miles away was be­ing ran­sacked, Ald. Ray Lopez said.

By the time po­lice rushed to the mall to find to more to stop no one there, the thieves had moved on to an­other large store — and phoned in ad­di­tional false re­ports to again shake po­lice off their trail.

“It was a game of whacka-mole,” Lopez said.

In other in­stances, car­a­vans of 10 or more cars would pull up to a store, smash the win­dows, then wait nearby to see if po­lice would ar­rive. If they didn’t, some of the same cars would re­turn to load up with goods and speed off.

A re­luc­tance of of­fi­cers to use force amid in­ten­si­fied scru­tiny of po­lice tac­tics has em­bold­ened would-be thieves, said Eu­gene O’Don­nell, a pro­fes­sor of po­lice stud­ies at New York’s John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice.

“All you have to tell po­lice is to do noth­ing and they will do noth­ing,” he said. “And they are im­plic­itly be­ing told, ‘Don’t do any­thing.’ ”

Some shoplifter­s dis­played sur­pris­ing brazen­ness, walk­ing out of stores with stolen goods. TV he­li­copters cap­tured some peo­ple chang­ing into their pil­fered at­tire out­side Long Beach shops and a thief strug­gling to close the trunk of a car stuffed with clothes at a Wal­nut Creek mall near Oak­land.

Kelly, from the Alameda County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, said the county be­gan to get a han­dle on things af­ter im­pos­ing evening cur­fews Mon­day.

He noted there was a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween pro­test­ers who got out of hand while demon­strat­ing for so­cial jus­tice and other peo­ple who seized on the up­ris­ing to steal.

“Some of the burn­ing was done out of anger and that was un­der­stand­able,” he said. “But the strate­gic loot­ing was def­i­nitely for per­sonal gain. It was not to push for­ward the com­mu­nity con­cerns around po­lice bru­tal­ity and re­form.”

NOAH BERGER/AP

Po­lice of­fi­cers leave a van­dal­ized store in Emeryville, Cal­i­for­nia. “There def­i­nitely was some or­ga­ni­za­tion,” the mayor said.

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