While flash mob robberies are all over social media this holiday season, these unruly thefts might not be as common as they seem.
Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Police Department has officers working around the clock to stop the organized rings behind these heists — especially after Chief Michel Moore personally witnessed one during his day off.
"A grab and run happened where an individual came in and took about 20 pairs of jeans, you know, right before me," Moore said.
Moore chased after the robber. While he couldn't catch up to him, the suspect dropped the items and hopped into a car.
"We got the items back," Moore said.
Just a few months ago, Southern California saw a sudden spike in flash mob robbery scenes. In 24 days in July and August, there were seven instances of people running in and stealing anything they could get their hands on — many times security is seen standing by, bewildering some.
Moore said he hopes security guards are witnessing the crimes to help officers track them down. Three months ago, Moore reinvigorated the department's organized retail crime unit. Now, three dozen investigators are working all day to catch these thieves.
They are worth with five other agencies across Southern California, including the Torrance Police Department. Detective James Wallace and his fellow officers set up countless "blitz" operations, identifying possible strikes at stores. One of the stores that he and his team recently staked out, was a retailer that has been hit more than 200 times.
There, Wallace and his fellow undercover officers roam inside and outside of the store, waiting to catch the crooks in action.
"We're making arrests of the right people," said LAPD Capt. Alfonso Lopez. "We're shutting down crews."
However, LAPD officials said that despite the sudden saturation of the viral images and videos, detectives have seen a different reality since August. Since then, the task force set up to combat retail theft has arrested 66 key people involved in multiple crimes. Lopez believes that police are winning this battle, and believes many businesses will agree.
And winning doesn't come easy. For example, on the very day this task force spent hour after hour setting up an operation at a local store, miles away in Watts, a crew was robbing a Nike store.
"You know, unfortunately, a lot of these undercover operations is sort of a roll of the dice," Wallace said.
Since Thanksgiving, investigators have seen another crime surge, shocking some officers.
"It's shocking. I don't recall ever seeing the number we've seen in the recent years," LAPD Lt. Michael McComas said.
However, this setback has not deterred officers, who understand that this trend won't be gone in a flash. Even though they have a daunting task in front of them, investigators know that each arrest they make will give shoppers some peace this holiday season.
"We're going to do our best to track down who did it and convince them that's not the best behavior," Wallace said.
For perspective, LAPD said that overall thefts are down about 1% when compared to pre-COVID levels in 2019. These flash mob robberies only account for a tiny fraction of these thousands of cases. Since they began tracking the crimes in July, police said they had received 167 reports and arrested 98 people.
One retailer, WSS shoe store, said that there has been "notable progress" from LAPD's blitz operations. The state has also taken notice with the California Assembly forming a select committee which will meet for the first time on Tuesday.
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