Editorial: L.A.’s smash-and-grab robberies are terrible, but not spurred by criminal justice reform

VIDEO | 00:33
Mob steals thousands in merchandise from Nordstrom store

An estimated 30 to 50 people participated in a brazen daytime robbery at the Westfield Topanga Shopping Center shortly after 4 p.m. Saturday, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

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Flash mob robberies of the kind that have been again hitting Los Angeles area retailers harm far more than the store owners who lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods. They harm more than the shoppers and the employees present during the heists who were put in fear of violence from the swarms of rampaging hooded criminals.

These crimes degrade the quality of all our lives — by casting a cloud of hesitancy, then discomfort, then dread over shopping areas and public spaces. People begin to think twice before entering a mall or a store. The next step is to stay away entirely and leave formerly public places to only those who are willing to take their chances and those who have no choice.

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Observers who would dismiss the problem as minor or argue that police have no proper role in dealing with it are off-base. Any free society needs law enforcement agencies that are sufficiently modern, well-equipped and nimble to respond to criminals who are constantly seeking new ways to steal.


Investigators can be expected to monitor social media platforms and the dark web, keep their ears to the ground and watch shadier resale markets where stolen goods are hawked at a discount. They keep in close touch with their counterparts in other jurisdictions. They know, even if the rest of us sometimes forget, that flash mob-style attacks are not a recent or uniquely California phenomenon, having hit Chicago, Houston, Jacksonville, Fla. and other cities and suburbs around the U.S. in waves for more than a decade.

The thieves learn from each other. So, no doubt, do police.

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The Los Angeles Police Department is reportedly increasing patrols as a response to recent flash mob robberies, and that conceivably could shore up shoppers’ confidence. But police tactics that were the norm decades ago — and that still might make for good TV or hold the public imagination — are not the key to ending the current wave of robberies.

For example, we should be relieved, not disappointed, that police did not arrive to confront the thieves inside the Nordstrom store at the Westfield Topanga mall in Canoga Park on Saturday, the Yves Saint Laurent outlet at the Americana at Brand in Glendale five days before, the Nike store in East Los Angeles on Monday or the Ksubi store on La Brea on Tuesday, and that as a result there were no shootouts or hostages. If unable to head off the attacks — a difficult task — effective law enforcement follows up on the back end with tireless work to identify the perpetrators and planners, and the receivers and sellers of stolen property and bring them to justice.

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There is a dangerous myth that as a society we have lost the will or the ability to do that. To the contrary, there’s a reason that these kinds of robbery schemes (some homegrown and others masterminded in foreign countries) come in waves, with significant respites in between. The perpetrators are caught. And punished. The smash-and-grab robberies that struck California during the 2021 holiday season ended with arrests, convictions and imprisonment.

More dangerous still is the utter nonsense — perhaps born of frustration, deep ignorance or political malice — that some law enforcement leaders and elected officials continue to spout about the supposed underlying reasons for these crimes. They claim these robberies are the result of criminal justice reform. All that lenience. All those liberals. Proposition 47, which reduced some low-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. $0 bail. Decriminalization.

Ridiculous. These robberies are organized retail thefts and criminal conspiracies, some of them aggravated assaults and all of them felonies. The value of goods stolen is well above the misdemeanor threshold. Proposition 47 has nothing to do with them. That ballot measure set the dividing line between grand theft (a felony) and petty theft (a misdemeanor) at $950. Most other states’ limits for felonies are higher, from $1,000 to as high as $2,500. That makes California one of the nation’s toughest states on property crimes, notwithstanding absurd and dishonest claims to the contrary.


Nor is there any evidence of anyone arrested for a smash-and-grab being released without bail and repeatedly committing the same crimes. Nor has California “decriminalized” any crime other than marijuana possession. Nor have police in this state been “defunded.” Nor have prosecutors been blocked or discouraged from prosecuting smash-and-grab robbers.

Californians, to their credit, are a savvy bunch who have repeatedly rejected falsehoods about criminal justice reform thrown at them by some fact-challenged prosecutors, candidates and law enforcement leaders.

But the nonsense and the fear-mongering from leaders keep coming, and it is in its own way as corrosive to a free and open society as brazen retail thefts. Californians should be able to expect their police and elected officials to tell them the truth, and demonstrate that they have an accurate perception of the crimes they are charged with preventing and solving.