Violence rises as some employees fight back against shoplifters, thieves

LOS ANGELES – Thieves have become more brazen. Against the advice of experts, some store employees are fighting back.

It has happened twice in the past week at jewelry stores in Southern California.

At around noon Sunday, a store in a Huntington Beach mall was attacked by smash-and-grab bandits, police said.

Surveillance video obtained by KTLA News showed employees fighting masked intruders near the entrance to the store, which is identified as Princess Bride Diamonds. One person attempted to clobber a suspect with a tall chair. Officers said in a tweet that no major injuries were reported and the suspects fled.

The attack came five days after a similar incident at David's Jewelers in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte. Three masked assailants smashed glass display cases and snatched valuables in a video posted on the store's Instagram page. Before they could escape, employees threw books and other objects at the hoodlums, then confronted them face-to-face.

The owner couldn’t be reached for comment, but an NBC affiliate reported at least two staffers suffered minor injuries from being struck by a hammer. They were unable to retrieve the loot.

Such incidents – no word on whether they might be linked – alarm retail security experts, who fear employees, criminals or bystanders could be seriously injured or killed.

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Violence rises; prosecution drops

“You want to train your people: Don’t put yourself into harm’s way,” said John Hassard, a veteran security expert for Robson Forensic.

Frustration among merchants has been building in tandem with the growing level of violence. Some aren't surprised that the result would swell into conflict even as they condemn it.

“They are angry because they see this bad behavior,” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association.

A National Retail Federation survey of its member companies, many of them large chains, taken before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, found the average number of shoplifting apprehensions fell fivefold from 2014 to 2019. Prosecutions were down, too.

Retailers’ fears aren't just about the threat of personal harm but also lawsuits that are sure to be more costly to defend than the value of stolen merchandise. The Retail Federation found the average shoplifting loss in 2019 per incident was $200.

Thieves drive a Range Rover into a jewelry store for a smash and grab robbery
Thieves drive a Range Rover into a jewelry store for a smash and grab robbery

California theft gets national attention

Issues of shoplifting and retail theft play out nationwide, but California has received much of the attention. Store owners have been shaken by incidents of thugs shattering store windows, grabbing armfuls of merchandise and fleeing.

In one incident, a security guard videotaped a thief filling a garbage bag with merchandise in a San Francisco drugstore, then escaping on a bicycle. In another, a pair of thieves took armloads of apparel at a T.J. Maxx store in Los Angeles and walked to their car.

In the past, store detectives or uniformed guards might have intervened, holding shoplifting suspects for police. Now, workers are often urged to stand back and, at most, document the crime in progress.

California shoplifting law puts felony threshold at $950

Retailers blame Proposition 47, passed by California voters in 2014, which reclassified many theft and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Under the measure, a nonviolent theft was no longer a felony unless it involved goods valued at least $950. Previously, it was $400. Critics said the measure encourages thieves to hit multiple businesses by imposing the threshold per incident, not cumulatively.

“This is just a different manifestation of this developing culture of lawlessness throughout the United States but in particular, Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Vern Pierson, immediate past president of the California District Attorneys Association and district attorney in El Dorado County, told USA TODAY in January.

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Hassard, based in Birmingham, Alabama, nabbed his share of shoplifting suspects over his 30 years in security, including a stint at Macy’s, but he knows the rules have changed and understands the safety issues behind the hands-off approach.

“Ninety-nine times out of 100, when you go to apprehend your typical shoplifter, they are going to stop and give you your stuff back, but that one time … you can’t predict, you can’t control it,” Hassard said.

The California Retailer’s Association reminds its members that lives count more than merchandise. As for a recommendation on what actions merchants should take against shoplifters or thieves, it’s up to them.

“It’s a company-by-company decision,”  Michelin said.

She said she has been trying to persuade reluctant state lawmakers to pass tougher laws to dissuade thieves and shoplifters and encourage prosecutors to crack down.

"I don't want to see this level of violence increase," she said. "It's preventable if we're willing to have this conversation."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California retail theft takes violent turn; store employees fight back