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Newsom Signs Bill Aimed at Cracking Down on Organized Retail Theft

LOS ANGELES (CBS SF) -- Surrounded by law enforcement officers and mayors from across California including San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an aggressive enforcement plan Wednesday targeting a stunning surge in brazen retail thefts by organized gangs.

The new legislation Newsom signed -- AB 331, introduced by Southern California Assemblymember Jones Sawyer -- is aimed at combating crime and reducing retail theft across California, in part by reinstating a task force focused on investigating organized theft rings as well as expanding the CHP's retail crime force.

The new law guarantees more law enforcement to go after fencing operations that hire low-level "boosters" who steal bags of merchandise at a time.

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Newsom took to the podium and initially addressed the alarming increase in gun violence across the country.

"You're seeing it all across the United States. There is not a state that has been spared, particularly in the gun violence over the course of the last year," said the governor. "Bottom line, at the end of the day, members of the public, you expect us to resolve and address these issues.

Newsom moved on to highlight the challenges retail stores were facing as far as thefts, some of them by organized gangs, and how the new bill would address the issue.

"This is not new in the state of California as the Assemblymember noted. We've been organized in a very deliberative manner to address the issue of organized retail crime for a number of years," said Newsom. "We are doubling down on those efforts today with this bill that I'll be signing here in a moment."

According to the California Retailer's Association, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento rank among the top 10 cities in the country when it comes to organized retail crime.

"In the retail term "shrink" -- which is the amount of loss to that -- that's the numbers that retailers look at. And that number continues to increase, not decrease," said California Retailers Association President Rachel Michelin.

Walgreens has closed several San Francisco stores and Target has cut back operating hours at its stores in the city because of rampant incidents of shoplifting and theft. It seems not a day goes by without a new social media video post of a theft.

"We've all seen images of people running in [to store to commit grab-and-dash thefts]...You are seeing them all across the state of California, those organized efforts -- and they are organized...We want to go after those rings," Newsom said.

The governor noted that law enforcement has had some success cracking down on retail theft with nearly 700 investigations leading to more than 250 arrests and the recovery of tens of millions of dollars in stolen merchandise, but he said his administration was committed to working with local law enforcement, local district attorneys and local elected officials to address the issues of violence and crime.

Newsom said the new bill being signed would streamline some of the hurdles state law enforcement -- specifically the California Highway Patrol -- face in getting involved with local investigations as well as providing significant funding for the investigative efforts.

"This is one of many different CHP operations in the state of California. We will also be expanding those operations across the spectrum, not just in terms of retail efforts," Newsom said.

A total of three CHP task forces will be focusing on organized retail theft, with one covering the Golden Gate area, a second one covering the San Diego area and the third based in Orange County.

The new bill guarantees funding for the task forces to continue operations for years to come.

The governor also highlighted the success of the state's past efforts to reduce gun violence, noting that California went from being the state with the third highest gun death rate in 1993 to being the state with the seventh lowest rate in 2017, the most recent year with data on the subject.

"We know how to produce results. California has led in terms of gun safety and common sense gun safety reforms," Newsom explained. "We recognize the headwinds; there's 39.7 million reasons to underscore that. That's the number of people not just living in the state of California, but coincidentally the number of people who got FBI background checks last year for the purchases of guns. That's the largest number of gun purchases in American history. We're up against a gun epidemic."

While Newsom acknowledged that both enforcement and accountability were critical, he also said that state officials were looking at issues comprehensively to focus equally on reforms and social programs that would reduce crime as a byproduct of their success.

Scott issued a release praising the governor's actions, saying the bill will make his job of stopping the organized groups of thieves targeting retail stores easier.

"The brazen retail thefts we've seen in San Francisco recently are fueled by sophisticated criminal enterprises that require a no less sophisticated response from law enforcement agencies, working in close coordination," Scott said. "These crimes don't just hurt retailers. In my city, they also hurt seniors who depend on neighborhood pharmacies that are being forced to shutter. They hurt workers who are seeing their hours cut and jobs eliminated by employers struggling to cope."

Scott continued: "The organized retail crime rings and individuals stealing on their behalf must be held accountable — and the newly reauthorized Organized Retail Crime Task Force will help my department and all of our partners statewide do exactly that."

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