As the holiday shopping season peaks, authorities in California are working to combat retail robberies. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) is stepping up efforts to combat such crimes across multiple cities, including Los Angeles, which leads the nation in organized retail theft.
Sergeant Jimmy Eberhart and other CHP officers recently arrested a major suspect accused of being involved in a widespread retail theft ring in Los Angeles. The operation, which CBS News exclusively witnessed, followed about three months of surveillance.
Eberhart said the team of thieves traveled up and down California, hitting multiple drug stores and then returning to Los Angeles to move the merchandise. During their investigation, authorities discovered several stolen items inside a vehicle, including a specialized key designed to unlock anti-theft security tags.
Some thieves don’t even try to hide their crimes, like with coordinated flash mobs. Seventeen people recently robbed a Nike store in Los Angeles.
Some security videos show people walking in and then right out of stores, unchallenged. But Eberhart said authorities do investigate and are “very proactive.”
In the past four years, the CHP’s Retail Crime Task Force has recovered over $33 million in stolen goods. At a warehouse near a swap meet, CHP officers found nearly 500 stolen items valued at over $10,000.
Still, it’s a constant battle. In one recent case, the Citadel Outlets in Southern California — a sprawling property with more than 100 retailers — was targeted by thieves during Black Friday weekend.
“This is not that individual shoplifting that we all kind of grew up with and heard about. This is an organized crime effort,” said Steve Craig, the outlets’ owner.
High-definition cameras and license plate scanners, along with increased on-site law enforcement presence, are being used to help counter crimes at the outlets.
“We’ve got the highest definition cameras that you can buy today. So we’re taking it very seriously,” said Craig.
“If someone would’ve told me 10 years ago we’d be spending $3 million a year on security, I would have said, ‘You’re nuts,'” Craig said.
A recent Gallup poll on personal safety found more Americans fear becoming victims of a crime, with 40% of respondents — the highest in three decades —saying they were afraid to walk alone at night within a mile of their home. Fifty percent of respondents fear having their car stolen or broken into, and 17% said they avoid going to malls.
Some law enforcement officers told CBS News that policy decisions that make it easier for criminals to avoid prosecution may inadvertently encourage retail crimes. Investigations are also costly and labor-intensive.
Additionally, the widespread acceptance of wearing masks in public poses a challenge in identifying suspects.