By Examiner Editorial Board
Crime has been at historic lows in the decade since California enacted significant criminal justice reforms, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the news. A series of organized thefts involving groups of people, who police say coordinated their attacks in advance, swept several cities last weekend and made national headlines.
CNN ran with a story titled “3 arrested after dozens ransack a Nordstrom store near San Francisco.” In reality, the thieving crews stole approximately $200,000 in merchandise from the Nordstrom store in Walnut Creek, a 30-minute drive away. No, it was The City’s Louis Vuitton store in Union Square that a separate pack of thieves mobbed and robbed as bystanders’ smartphones captured viral footage.
The chaotic scene in Union Square led to predictable howls of blame targeting District Attorney Chesa Boudin. But similar crimes also took place in Hayward, Piedmont, San Jose, Beverly Hills and Chicago last weekend. This complicates efforts to place the blame solely on San Francisco’s DA, who promised felony charges for any perpetrators arrested by the San Francisco Police Department. It also highlights the vexing challenge California’s Democratic leaders face in managing the perception that crime rates — which have fallen over the past decade — are spiraling out of control.
The spectacle of highly-organized robberies involving dozens of perpetrators targeting high-end stores represents a growing problem for law enforcement officials statewide. On Monday, in the aftermath of the weekend’s sprees, Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the issue during a press conference to highlight the state’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
“We cannot allow this to continue. Period. Full stop,” said Newsom of the thefts.
“I was a mayor and I know when things like this happen, mayors have to step up,” he added.
True, but when mayors all over the state find themselves dealing with the same pattern of crimes, the governor who championed the reforms some blame for enabling these crimes is also on the hook. This explains why Newsom also announced plans for an “exponential increase” in state funding to address the crime of organized retail theft. In the meantime, Newsom said, the California Highway Patrol — which runs the state’s Organized Retail Crime Task Force — will work with local law enforcement to beef up security in retail locations.
“The task force has been part of 668 investigations resulting in 252 arrests, as well as the recovery of over $16.3 million in stolen merchandise, over the past three years, according to the Governor’s Office,” reported Bay City News Service.
While property crimes targeting stores may seem like victimless acts to some on the far left, these incidents greatly harm a city’s sense of safety, not to mention its image. These crimes have also become violent, with armed criminals brandishing weapons and assaulting store employees. The emerging trend of “flash mobs” carrying out brazen crimes must be handled with urgency and innovation.
Criminal justice reform opponents blame Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that changed sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes in California. But the law does not prevent district attorneys from finding creative ways to seek tough penalties for crimes involving conspiracy and major theft.
Facing an energetic recall campaign funded by billionaires, District Attorney Boudin – a dedicated reformer – wasted no time in making it clear he would throw the book at looters.
“I’m outraged by the looting in Union Square last night,” wrote Boudin on Twitter. “We are seeing similar crimes across the country. I have a simple message: don’t bring that noise to our City. Great work by SFPD. Standby for felony charges.”
On Tuesday, Boudin’s office filed felony charges against five people arrested in connection with thefts at Union Square and four for thefts in other parts of The City. The decision drew criticism from a spokesperson for a group called Defund SFPD.
“No felony charges will be able to change the fact that folks aren’t able to meet their basic needs,” said Aditi Joshi, according to a story by The Examiner’s Benjamin Schneider.
While crime and poverty often go hand in hand, it’s not clear that group heists of pricey leather Louis Vuitton bags are motivated by sheer economic necessity. The forthcoming prosecutions of the alleged looters will shed light on why the accused took part in the crimes and how organizers recruited such large numbers of participants to create havoc. Were they really forced to join organized criminal conspiracies to feed their families? Or did they get lured into serious felonies by the selfish promise of mob anonymity, free goodies and lawless fun?
Whatever the case, the perpetrators are unlikely to receive mercy or understanding from even the most reform-minded of politicians at this point. Last weekend’s raids were a tipping point, and smart leaders know when it’s time to pivot and set an example.
There’s no reason for Democrats to backtrack on criminal justice reforms that have succeeded in lowering both crime rates and incarceration. But these outrageous robbery sprees make it easy for conservatives to slander Democrats as weak on public safety. This is not the case, and California leaders must prove it by cracking down on this trend of brazen looting.
On Tuesday, district attorneys from six Bay Area counties announced a new alliance to share information and coordinate on a response to these crimes. This is a good first step, but California’s leaders must do more. State and local authorities must work together to prosecute offenders, develop intelligence, dismantle networks and create strategies to ensure prospective looters understand that flagrant criminality will result in the most serious of consequences.