Police, retailers struggle to respond to smash-and-grab ‘flash mob’ robberies

A security guard patrols the entrance of a Nordstrom store at the Grove shopping center in L.A.'s Fairfax district
A security guard patrols the entrance of a Nordstrom store at the Grove shopping center in L.A.’s Fairfax district on Tuesday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A surge in smash-and-grab “flash mob” robberies at luxury stores has police and retailers struggling with how to crack down on the crimes.

Such thefts continued in Los Angeles as organized groups descended on stores and grabbed expensive merchandise in pre-Thanksgiving raids around the city.

On Wednesday night, a security guard was attacked with bear spray as several people entered the Nordstrom store at the Westfield Topanga & the Village shopping center in Canoga Park, grabbed merchandise and ran out, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Police are investigating a similar incident the same night in which groups struck several stores at Beverly Center in the Beverly Grove neighborhood.


The thefts came two days after an organized group smashed a window at a Nordstrom at the Grove shopping center and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise, police said.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore told the Los Angeles Police Commission that the department would be stepping up patrols and dedicating additional resources to some higher-end locations to deter the wave of mob thefts.

At the Police Commission meeting earlier this week, Steve Soboroff, a retail developer and member of the commission, asked Moore what advice he had for retailers, especially smaller mom-and-pop businesses, to avoid falling victim to such crimes.

Moore recommended that businesses station employees to greet patrons as they enter stores and ask what they are seeking.

The chief said high-value items are best kept away from the front of the store to limit access to them.

Moore said security cameras can also be vital in identifying suspects. In the Nordstrom robbery, he said, one of the three suspects was captured in the store after the break-in was caught on video.


Moore said high-end retailers are increasingly using GPS location devices to track merchandise and help police locate thieves.

Last Friday, a mass smash-and-grab hit luxury stores in Union Square in San Francisco, police said. And the next night, at a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek in the East Bay, some 80 people jumped out of a pack of cars just before closing time and swarmed the store’s aisles, many escaping with merchandise. Two employees were assaulted, one of them with pepper spray.

Then, shortly after midnight last Sunday, culprits used a sledgehammer to smash storefront windows at a Louis Vuitton and a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, police said, but patrol cars arrived to scare the thieves off before they could get inside.

San Francisco police said additional officers would be placed in exclusive shopping areas to prevent mobs from overwhelming store security, as happened last week. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the California Highway Patrol has also stepped up patrols across the state.

At the Grove in L.A.’s Fairfax district this week, the Nordstrom robbery did not appear to be deterring shoppers.

Guadalupe Rivas extended a 12-year tradition of trekking from Bakersfield to the popular outdoor mall on Wednesday for holiday shopping the day before Thanksgiving. She was en route to meeting family in Fullerton.


She said the smash-and-grab robbery was not going to deter her.

“I’ve never felt scared here and I wasn’t going to let that stop me,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, Rivas shopped at several boutiques and said she felt secure with guards protecting entrances to Nordstrom and the Apple Store. A pair of LAPD officers were also posted at the police kiosk outside the entrance to the department store.

“I might ask one of them to help me with my bags,” Rivas quipped.

Nordstrom employees said they were not allowed to comment about the robbery and referred questions to a corporate spokesperson. In a statement, the company said, “Given recent incidents at two of our stores and incidents across the industry, we’re heightening our in-store security presence and implementing additional protective measures to keep everyone safe.”

At an outdoor kiosk selling apparel, an employee named Ikar, who asked that his last name not be published, said he trusted the mall’s security and was more wary of unruly shoppers.

“I wish security would protect me from Black Friday shoppers, who are rude, nasty and demanding,” he said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a moment where I felt unsafe at the Grove.”