It looked like chaos when groups of young people dashed from cars into the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco's Union Square and ran off with luxury purses, bags, and designer wear.
A few days later, about 80 people stormed through a Walnut Creek mall, stealing expensive items before fleeing. At L.A.'s Grove shopping mall not long after, a smaller group used sledgehammers on a Nordstrom.
But California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said the group crimes are rooted in a kind of organized crime. Those dashing into the stores are mostly foot soldiers for others calling the shots from a safe distance.
The state's top prosecutor said they are giving directions to the people hitting businesses by wielding social media, text and message groups to guide them on the most valuable goods to snatch.
The stolen goods are eventually sold for a considerable profit, he said.
"You know, the crime we are seeing is organized crime, and it is going to take an organized strategy to put a stop to it," Bonta said of smash-and-grab crimes and a broader array of retail thefts that have ramped up in California stores. "These are these folks that have put thought into it, have a strategy, have a plan, focused on certain places at certain times and communicate and work in concert."
His comments come as police have stepped up patrols to combat the so-called take-over robberies, which hit the state earlier this month.
In downtown L.A., Bonta hosted a meeting Tuesday of big-box retailers, online marketplaces, and law enforcement to discuss the state of organized retail theft in California and develop strategies for combating it.
Representatives from the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Amazon, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, CVS, Gap, Home Depot, Lowe's, Target, the California Highway Patrol's Organized Retail Crime Task Force, the California State Sheriffs' Assn., and the California Police Chiefs Assn. attended the meeting.
"We have all the key players to get the appropriate solutions," Bonta told reporters after the meeting. "Our retailers don't want to be victims of these unacceptable crimes. Our officers on law enforcement partners rightfully shouldn't put their lives on the line when responding to these outrageous smashes and grabs. And our online marketplaces don't want their platforms illegally abused."
The attorney general said the businesses have a role to play in the effort to combat these crimes.
"Large retailers can help ... making sure that they're reporting the theft, communicating with law enforcement, reporting it early and making certain types of security," Bonta said in an interview.
The rash of crimes has generated debates not only over how to combat them but over criminal justice reforms that California has undertaken, which some police officials blame for an increase in some crimes.
Francisco Uribe, senior director of Home Depot and former president of the California Retailers Assn, said all the partners can play a role in preventing these crimes, which put "our communities at risk, our employees, our associates and customers."
Responding to criticism that social justice reforms including Proposition 47 have fueled shoplifting by reducing its consequences, Bonta said these crimes are organized thefts that are felonies and that in the smash and grab incidents the suspects blew through the $950 threshold for a felony in a few seconds.
Bonta said that some of the people in storming retail stores have been armed with "guns and pepper spray and other weapons."
He said the thefts were driven by greed, not necessity.
"It's an organized criminal activity to make a profit, and they have secondary marketplaces who take the stolen goods and resell them," Bonta said. "And they can resell them in the state, in other states and even internationally."
He said it is important to go after the high-level people calling the shots, not just the ones physically stealing from the stores.
"When folks know that there are consequences ... there will be accountability," Bonta said. "And that's how we prevent it."
The prosecutor added that it's also important to try to prevent the thefts from happening in the first place. He said one thing he wants to see happen is the shutting down of online and social media marketplaces that can be used to sell stolen merchandise.
A ring broken up last year in the Bay Area had a warehouse full of more than $8 million in goods — including high-end items and pharmaceuticals. Some of it was being sold overseas.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.