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Crime Spree Forces Nordstrom to Call in Cops

A series of “grab and run” thefts at a Walnut Creek, Calif. Nordstrom store is costing the upscale retailer thousands of dollars, part of what appears to be an unfortunate reality across the San Francisco Bay Area: that organized retail crime (ORC) has become a major drag on the already suffering retail community.

Now, the Seattle department store company is looking to put an end to the issue by teaming up with local law enforcement.

On Tuesday, the Walnut Creek City Council approved a one-year contract with Nordstrom that will allow for a uniformed officer to be stationed at the town’s Broadway Plaza store, with the retailer reimbursing the city for the officer’s overtime costs.

“These thefts have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost property and a perception that Nordstrom may be unsafe for patrons,” the city council staff report said. “The Walnut Creek Nordstrom has experienced instances of this type of crime. Nordstrom security staff and management is concerned about the safety of their employees and their customers.”

The council officially approved $231,514 for the one-year move, which Nordstrom will reimburse in quarterly payments. Officers will volunteer for the assignment and be paid overtime. The store will continue to employ private security in addition to the new agreement with police.

Nordstrom did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the staff report, the council said vehicles belonging to the same groups targeting high-end stores around the Bay Area have been captured on video around Broadway Plaza.

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An Apple store in the same plaza struck a similar agreement with the city after suffering similar robberies. Walnut Creek Police Lt. Anthony Mangini said the officer’s visible presence in front of the store eliminated the phone maker’s problem.

A National Retail Federation (NRF) survey of 61 retailers said that organized retail crime was responsible for an average loss of $719,548 per $1 billion in sales. Of ORC victims, 75 percent said they saw an increase in ORC activity in the 12 months prior to the study, conducted between February and April 2020.

The Bay Area appears to be a hotbed for ORC in particular. In a September search and arrest warrant operation, law enforcement agents seized and recovered approximately $8 million of stolen merchandise from retailers across the Bay Area including CVS, Target and Walgreens, as well as $85,000 in cash from the suspects’ residences, a warehouse and storage facilities.

In the span of a month, three major instances of retail theft struck the Stanford Shopping Center in northern California’s ritzy Palo Alto enclave. On May 19, at least 10 individuals stole more than $150,000 in luxury handbags from an open Neiman Marcus store. On June 7, a group of 11 individuals ran into an open Louis Vuitton store and stole more than $100,000 in handbags. And on June 21, seven individuals shoplifted at The RealReal, leaving with more than $50,000 in premium handbags, according to the Palo Alto Police Department (PAPD).

The incident at Neiman Marcus was caught on video, showing the suspects running out of the department store carrying several designer handbags and jumping into getaway cars. The video below went viral and was picked up and shared by local news agencies.

Last month, Target was among Bay Area retailers that took a stand against the incessant shoplifting, moving its closing hour up to 6 p.m. at its five San Francisco stores. An individual 7-Eleven location in San Francisco now only conducts business through a metal door after 10 p.m. in a bid to deter thefts.

Walgreens even closed 17 stores in the area over the past five years due to the rampant theft. The pharmacy’s regional vice president Jason Cunningham told city officials in May that stores in San Francisco face theft four times the average versus anywhere else.

The Palo Alto examples could trigger California’s state government to address the problem, with Gov. Gavin Newsom signing a law in July aimed at curbing organized retail theft. The law is a reestablishment of a previous law that lapsed as of July 1, allowing prosecutors to once again seek to charge the crime as either a misdemeanor or a felony. It applies to those who work with others to steal merchandise either from brick-and-mortar stores or online, with the intent to sell or return the merchandise.

But now, the legislation also applies to someone who works with others to receive stolen merchandise, those who steal for others as part of an organized theft ring or people who do the recruiting or organizing for the theft ring.

The lawmakers acted after retailers and law enforcement complained that punishments for such property crimes had been reduced under a voter-approved ballot initiative in 2014 called Proposition 47.

Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, said her organization sponsored the legislation in the hope that it could stem the tide of rising theft. Michelin had previously put blame on San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin for failing to strongly prosecute ORC suspects.

“[Boudin’s] made it clear he will not prosecute many of these crimes,” she told a local ABC affiliate. “When people hear that, they look at San Francisco and think they can commit these crimes and there will not be any consequences for their behavior.”

As of Wednesday, larceny theft crime reports in San Francisco have dropped 2 percent this year-to-date to 15,633 from 15,948, while burglary increased 1.3 percent to 4,338 from 4,282. When comparing 2021 year-to-date to the same time frame across 2018, larceny theft reports are 36 percent down from the 24,695, but burglaries are up 29 percent from 3,352.

Of course, shoplifting incidents aren’t exclusive to the Bay Area, even if more high-profile examples of theft may occur in the region. Vault 813 in Tampa, Fla. was the recent victim of high-priced theft that totaled a potential $200,000 in sneakers. The high-end footwear store offered a $20,000 cash reward to those who can identify the four individuals who created a hole in the rear wall of the business to enter and raid the store.

Seattle police said last month they made more than 50 arrests linked to coordinated thefts at nine large retailers and grocery stores, and in Albuquerque, N.M., the state’s top prosecutor, police and big-box stores announced a partnership this month to combat ORC. The initiative includes dedicating some of the state’s top prosecutors, improving communication lines between agencies and leveraging technologies to help catch criminals.