From SF to LA, luxury retail stores face brazen robberies. How is law enforcement responding?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nihar Patel

A Nordstrom store is seen behind palm trees in Palo Alto, California. On November 20, 2021, some 80 people ransacked a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek, California, and assaulted some employees. Photo by Shutterstock.

Governor Gavin Newsom says “substantially more” law enforcement officers will be near busy retail stores this Thanksgiving week. That’s because high-end luxury stores have been recently robbed. On Friday, Bloomingdales, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton in San Francisco’s Union Square were hit. The following day in nearby Walnut Creek, some 80 people simultaneously jumped out of cars and ransacked a Nordstrom, grabbing whatever they could carry and assaulting some employees. And in LA, attempted break-ins happened in Beverly Hills on Sunday night, and at The Grove’s Nordstrom on Monday night. 

Richard Winton, crime reporter for the LA Times, describes what happened on Friday at Union Square: “A smash-and-grab mob descended on Union Square’s most fancy stores, starting around Louis Vuitton. They pulled up with vehicles immediately outside the store, made an entry, and basically just started grabbing stuff. And as the police chief described to me … basically just loading the stuff into their cars. Staff was basically overwhelmed, and then they moved from store to store in that immediate area. … More than 40 people here [were] involved in this. And lots, according to the San Francisco police chief, looked somewhat organized.”

He says yesterday at the Grove’s Nordstrom, windows were smashed, and about $5,000 worth of merchandise were stolen, according to LAPD Chief Michel Moore. Some 20 people pulled up in cars and then fled after nearby LAPD officers responded. The officers chased one of the cars to South LA and apprehended three people and recovered items from the car. 

Winton says it’s likely that thieves are copying each other, and the main targets are apparently luxury stores. “But for instance in one of the Bay Area malls, Lululemon was the target. There are other stores on the way. We've also seen a number of jewelry stores,” he adds. 

Stores are now more prepared, but one investigator told Winton that sooner or later, someone’s going to get seriously hurt because some thieves are wielding weapons. 

“That's the difference between a burglary and robbery, essentially. Petty theft — grabbing something off the rack at Louis Vuitton. And then there's taking out the person's hand, or physically threatening them, or smashing the case, wielding a sledgehammer in front of them — this moves into more [of] the area of robbery.”

Most of these cases are misdemeanors, he notes. “The way the law works is, say, someone takes the purse off the counter at Louis Vuitton and runs out, that's gonna be a misdemeanor. Now say they snatched it … out of a staffer’s hand … then that's a robbery. Most of these people are already facing misdemeanors, which means the repercussions aren't that serious.”

He continues, “There is a law about organized burglaries and organized takeovers of stores, and people who do this almost professionally, and that law does extend to the felony.”

Thieves might be selling these goods and moving them on various internet sites, he says. 

Meanwhile, LAPD Chief Michel Moore is planning to step up patrols at night. “So if someone does move in, the threat of apprehension seems to be the main thing which deters people.”

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