LOS ANGELES—For Tonna, the manager of a shop in the Beverly Grove neighborhood of Los Angeles, her experience in recent days is like many other small-business owners who have been victimized amid a trend of organized retail crime across the city. She declined to give her last name.
“Recently, it’s become normal,” she told The Epoch Times, her voice shaking. “They grab stuff and they leave.”
Her vape shop had been robbed an hour earlier.
Weary from so many thefts at her business, Tonna didn’t even bother calling the police. One of her customers did, but it was already too late. The suspect had fled.
Tonna is one of dozens of shop owners in the city who say they’ve had enough. Changing political tides and social justice reforms, many say, have changed everything.
“They just grab whatever they want, and you call the police and nothing happens,” she said.
Some say it began with the passage by California voters of Proposition 47, which reclassified certain felony crimes as misdemeanors. One of the effects of the measure, passed in 2014, also significantly reduced the penalty for robberies.
Now suspects can steal property valued under $950 and it’s only classified as a misdemeanor.
The goal of the measure was to reduce overcrowding in prisons and prioritize jail space for higher criminal offenses. However, victims of robberies and those opposing the proposition say it’s only increased crime and boosted the confidence of criminals.
The Public Policy Institute of California reported a correlation between Prop. 47 and “a rise in larceny (or personal property) thefts, especially thefts from motor vehicles” in 2018.
At the time of the study, however, researchers didn’t find a link between violent crimes and the ballot measure. But following nearly a dozen large-scale incidents of so-called “smash-and-grab” robberies last month—with more occurring every day—critics continue to call on lawmakers to reexamine the policy.
Thus far, officials have announced 14 arrests after a string of robberies across major Los Angeles shopping centers, resulting in nearly $340,000 worth of merchandise stolen.
All suspects arrested were released from police custody within a week, with some let go in hours, while others were bailed out due to California’s zero cash bail policy—another 2020 controversial policy.
The California Supreme Court this year did away with cash bail for defendants who can’t afford it, arguing that “conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional.”
The zero cash bail policy applies to most misdemeanors and lower-level felonies, meaning that when suspects are arrested for theft, they’re released back onto the streets hours later. The policy took effect during the COVID-19 pandemic to mitigate the spread of the virus in jails. It hasn’t been rolled back.
Los Angeles Councilman Joe Busciano announced on Dec. 8 a resolution to support the reinstitution of cash bail in the county. He said the suspension of cash bail “created a free-for-all environment where criminals are charged one day and released the next.”
His resolution states there has been a substantial increase in violent crime and robberies. Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón said earlier this year that the cash bail system “allows wealthy people who are dangerous to purchase their freedom, while those without means who pose no risk to public safety languish in jail awaiting trial.”
At the state level, some lawmakers are trying to repeal Prop. 47 and rescind other “soft on crime” policies in light of recent incidents.
“You’ve had lawmakers on both sides who have previously raised concerns about what’s happened in the wake of Prop. 47, so I think that absolutely, there should be bipartisan support, because public safety is not a partisan issue,” California Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) told The Epoch Times.
Kiley said a new breed of district attorneys “who are not putting public safety first” is also to blame. “They are putting ideology first.”
He’s currently drafting a constitutional amendment to combat the proposition.
Kiley said Gascón and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin “decline to prosecute people even when the laws do allow for it.”
Some statutes in the books may help prosecutors combat the crime surge. If a shoplifter has prior convictions—including murder, vehicular manslaughter while under the influence, assault leading to a sexual offender status, assault against law enforcement, or possession of a weapon of mass destruction—they can be charged with felony shoplifting and fined up to $10,000.
Still, it may not be enough.
“We have taken away the tools that law enforcement officers need to keep our communities safe,” Kiley said.
In the wake of statewide thefts during the holiday season and intense media coverage, Boudin and San Francisco prosecutors recently announced felony charges against nine suspects in an effort to crack down on serial offenders.
The issue crosses party lines, but matters of public safety have become political in California.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Chief Michel Moore this month urged state leaders to suspend the zero bail policy. According to Moore, last week’s series of robberies were the highest number the city has seen for the entire year, with a total of 200 reported.
“There are people who need to be behind bars,” Garcetti said during a Dec. 2 press conference. “How many times does the same person have to steal a car? Three? Four or five times?”
Garcetti said that perhaps now is the time to get back to business as usual, after the city—early in the pandemic—released inmates to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We’re in a better place with COVID,” he said. “We should be able to also open up our jails. And we should be able to have judges that put people behind those bars as well.”
Moore cited an increase in vehicle thefts citywide for the first time in a decade and said the suspects “stealing them are the chronic offenders.”
Meanwhile, halfway across the country, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has blamed retailers for not doing enough to deter shoplifters.
“We still have retailers that won’t institute plans like having security officers in their stores, making sure that they’ve got cameras that are actually operational, locking up their merchandise at night, chaining high-end bags. These purses can be something that is attracting a lot of organized retail theft units,” Lightfoot said Dec. 6.
For the mom-and-pop retail owners in Los Angeles who can’t afford to hire a security guard or implement the safety measures that larger retail chains can afford, some businesses continue to suffer.
According to Tonna, the new crime wave has given pause to some workers, citing safety concerns.
“It is scary, because a lot of people don’t want to work,” Tonna said. “They don’t want to be here.”
According to authorities, suspects often work in groups, wear ski masks, and wield firearms. Shop owners and customers alike have been threatened across California, with San Francisco and Los Angeles being the primary hot spots.
Residents have also been the victims of a spate of home robberies, with security footage of violent assaults spreading across social media.
Law Enforcement Morale Low, LAPD Detective Says
It’s all just another issue for businesses to deal with after a tough year and a half in lockdown. And some LAPD officers fear they can’t protect stores anymore because of current laws, coupled with department units being downsized.
After an initial heavy-handed budget cut to the LAPD after protests following the death of George Floyd, the LA police commission recently voted to approve a $213 million budget increase for the department next year. The funds will increase police staffing.
Detective Jamie McBride, a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League—a 99-year-old police union—told The Epoch Times that law enforcement communities across California are frustrated “because they’re still making the arrests, but nobody is staying in jail.”
“It’s literally a revolving door. We feel like we’re letting the citizens down,” he said. “The small businesses that survived COVID—you open up and now they’re just like literally ripping everything away from these people.”
McBride, who’s been part of the LAPD for more than 30 years, blamed the state’s progressive policies and District Attorney Gascón for reversing “tough on crime” prosecutions. He said people are being robbed in broad daylight, while walking out of coffee shops on Melrose Avenue, in food courts, and on private property.
Prior to the passage of Prop. 47, shoplifters would be subject to prosecution under the state’s burglary laws, which contained felony penalties of up to six years in prison.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom recently defended Prop. 47, and said some local officials choose not to prosecute criminals under other existing state laws, although he didn’t specify which ones. He also said any thefts under the $950 limit should be charged as misdemeanors or loaded into felony complaints if they are repeated offenses.
“If people are breaking in, people stealing your property, they need to be arrested,” Newsom said during a press conference on Dec. 2. “Police need to arrest them. Prosecutors need to prosecute them. Judges need to hold people accountable for breaking the law.”
“These are not victimless crimes, and I have no empathy for these criminal elements.”
McBride said if he could talk to every police chief in California, he would tell them “they need to protect their citizens, and they need to grant concealed weapons permits to every law-abiding citizen because we in law enforcement in California cannot keep them safe.”
McBride added that Newsom is “out of touch with reality” for not attributing the recent crime wave to the effects of Prop. 47.
According to 2020 California statistics, some crime has decreased since Prop. 47 took effect, including property crimes, down nearly 8 percent; larceny, down 15 percent, and a 4 percent drop in burglaries.
But these numbers don’t factor in the incidents like the ones that Tonna has experienced, because some businesses have simply stopped reporting the crimes because of a lack of consequences.
“It shouldn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat,” McBride said. “We all want to feel safe in our home, when we go to the store, and everything else. And in order to do that, we need to bring back tougher laws and keep people in jail.”
Small Businesses Director: ‘Rectify This Terrible Problem’
Retail crimes aren’t rising just in the Golden State. According to a 2021 survey by a national retail trade association, organized retail crime became more prevalent nationwide during the pandemic.
“Yet despite the growing dangers from organized retail crime, no federal law prevents this type of activity. That leaves prosecutions—if they do occur—in a patchwork of local jurisdictions, even though the crimes are typically multi-jurisdictional and multi-state,” the study notes.
John Kabateck, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business, told The Epoch Times that state leaders need to shine a light on these crimes and give the small-business community in California a voice.
“One of the things that I think everybody is wondering is: Who’s fighting for the small-business owner, and who’s working to defend the small-business owner in these times?” Kabateck said.
“It’s really frustrating to see this spate of crimes emerge at such a fast pace and volume and with very little attention from our policymakers about what they’re doing to help the entrepreneurs struggling, the small mom-and-pop business owners, and those who don’t have the luxury of the multitude of resources that most big box stores are fortunate to have and enjoy.”
He said it’s “tragic” for the employers who can’t replace stolen inventory, especially during the current supply chain disruption.