As Palm Springs police continue to search for suspects in a mid-August “smash and grab” retail store theft downtown, news reports from across the region and elsewhere in the state show they are not alone.
But are headlines proclaiming these past few months a “flash mob summer” something to be overly alarmed about here? And should our city expect to be next in line for a series of brazen daylight attacks, sometimes carried out by dozens of criminals? The answer to both questions is “not likely,” but that doesn’t mean residents and business owners shouldn’t be more alert.
“I’m not asking you to be paranoid,” PSPD Lt. William Hutchinson told a group of downtown business owners and other leaders at a Main Street Palm Springs meeting earlier this week. “But I am asking you to be prepared.”
That means preparing your business, Hutchinson explained, recognizing that sometimes it leads to less-than-ideal store configurations.
“Perhaps protect your most valuable items by locking them up,” said Hutchinson. “That’s not a great option, but those are decisions you are going to have to make as a business owner. Put your most valuable items in the back. Do not put them up front. Thieves like to have quick access to valuable items, and if they are up front that only helps them.”
Whatever actions business owners take, he emphasized, putting your life — or the lives of others — in jeopardy should not be among them.
“It’s not worth your life,” he said. “You have insurance, hopefully, and hopefully you’ve put in good surveillance systems and you do your best to educate your employees. Life is more precious than that.”
Unlike larger cities that have malls with luxury stores as anchor tenants, retail businesses in Palm Springs are typically small and contain limited merchandise.. That means witnessing dozens of masked people stampeding through a parking lot carrying stolen goods is unlikely. Still, any time a crime is committed in a public place it can be a traumatic experience for both victims and witnesses.
In the August incident here, Hutchinson said three suspects took part in a robbery of the Gold Store on South Palm Canyon Drive, fleeing after an employee of the store fired a weapon. All of the suspects are believed to be from Victorville. That’s where a 33-year-old man was arrested on Aug. 31 after police served a search warrant at his address. He faces charges of robbery and conspiracy to commit a felony.
How the suspects were dressed, Hutchinson said, should have been a red flag for anyone who saw them walking down city streets.
“These guys were wearing heavy gloves and long sleeve shirts in 100-plus-degree heat,” Hutchinson said, adding that members of the public should never be afraid to report suspicious people or behavior.
“We all have a duty to be observant,” he said. “If you see odd behavior, report that.”
In cases like those making headlines in larger cities, which some police have labeled “flash robs,” even the best preparation and awareness may not prevent the crimes. Groups of highly organized thieves are sometimes in and out of stores in less than five minutes, grabbing merchandise and fleeing in multiple vehicles, making even swift police response too slow.
“They come in groups of 10 to 40 people and they overwhelm the store,” Los Angeles County Deputy Chief Kris Pitcher told The Riverside Press- Enterprise this week. “You won’t get pushback when you come in with those numbers. No one wants to get injured. They do it quickly, they overwhelm and take all the high-end goods.”
Despite what may appear to be a frightening epidemic of high-end store robberies, retail thefts at those shops are actually in the minority. Many retailers where more common goods are sold, including Home Depot and Dick’s Sporting Goods, reported crime was a growing concern during the past earnings season, although some losses were due to employee thefts and “operational failures.”
Target alone expects to report more than $1 billion in “shrink” — the industry term often used for store theft — this year, up from $763 million last year. The most recent data from the National Retail Federation shows the overall shrink was $94.5 billion in 2021, up from $90.8 billion in 2020.
“There’s a lot of frustration with organized retail theft,” Hutchinson said, pointing out that even when thieves are caught, state sentencing guidelines prevent them from serving lengthy jail terms.
He said another possible frustration on the horizon is a proposed law working its way through Sacramento — SB 553 — that would make it illegal to confront shoplifters.
Despite what could be perceived as obstacles in retail theft prevention, police aren’t giving up. Los Angeles city and county officials formed a 22-person task force in mid-August in order to help investigate nearly two dozen flash mob thefts there, The Press-Enterprise reported. The task force is focusing on cell tower dumps, surveillance video, and other techniques in order to catch the robberies in the planning stage.
As of Sept. 1, the task force had made 15 arrests, all resulting in felony filings by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.