The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The perverse incentives behind the ‘smash and grab’ wave

Union Square visitors look at damage to the Louis Vuitton store on Nov. 21, after looters ransacked businesses in San Francisco. (Danielle Echeverria/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
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It has been 12 days since hammer- and crowbar-wielding thieves descended en masse upon retail stores in San Francisco’s Union Square, opening a surge of attacks, caught on video, that has frightened shoppers and employees across the country — and made “smash and grab” a household expression.

Tragically, the wave has precipitated at least one fatality: Kevin Nishita, a retired police officer, was shot and killed while providing security for a local TV news crew covering a robbery in Oakland, Calif.

Republicans have seized on the scary holiday-season attacks, many of which have occurred in and around communities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Chicago that are governed by Democrats.

Donald Trump issued this statement Tuesday: “If Democrats don’t immediately stop smash-and-grab robberies, which are taking place in their cities, the National Guard must be called out.” If only he had demonstrated the same urgency when he was president and his own supporters smashed and grabbed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The concern remains that, in addition to potential loss of life, smash-and-grab robbery could deter many people from shopping, or working, in retail stores, causing long-term damage to business climates and tax bases. On Black Friday, Union Square was open for business — with boarded up windows.

If the authorities in blue states and cities can’t control it, they — and their party — will deserve whatever political punishment they get.

“They’re not just stealing people’s products and impacting their livelihoods, they’re stealing a sense of place and confidence,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said Nov. 22, showing that he, at least, understands the risks. “We want people prosecuted and we want people to feel safe this holiday season.” Newsom ordered the California Highway Patrol to step up surveillance for getaway cars near shopping malls.

His words could be read as a backhanded critique of the state’s progressive district attorneys, most famously San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, who even before the latest thefts faced a recall next June. Many in that city believe his lenient policies, intended to avoid undue incarceration, have fueled a surge in property crime. Boudin denounced the attacks in Union Square and filed felony charges against some of those arrested. It may be too little, too late, to save his job.

If deep-blue Seattle can elect a tough-on-crime Republican prosecutor — as it did Nov. 3 — San Francisco can recall Boudin.

As it happens, the lack of consequences for offenders is probably only part of what’s going on, in California and elsewhere. The obviously planned raids are part of an apparent national increase in “organized retail crime,” or ORC.

Stolen-goods rackets aren’t new — decades ago, gangsters dealt in merchandise that “fell off a truck." Like those old-time crooks, today’s seek goods that are both relatively small — easy to carry and store — and relatively lucrative. Most of the year, ORC traffics in men’s razors, teeth-whitening strips and, of all things, baby formula. At Christmas, they shift to higher-end gift items such as Louis Vuitton bags, fragrances and electronics.

“Not only are the stores stocked up for Black Friday,” Tony Sheppard, a 27-year veteran of retail industry anti-theft efforts, told me, “but also the person reselling the stuff is prepping for the holiday season.”

According to Sheppard, who now works for ThinkLP, a retail loss-prevention company, the new element is technology, which has enabled organized criminals to recruit and pay mobs — and resell stolen goods — via the Internet.

And when brick-and-mortar stores closed during the pandemic, millions of shoppers shifted to online. This boosted the legitimate online marketplace, but created new demand for stolen goods in cyberspace, too.

Between the perception that perpetrators would not be harshly punished, and new possibilities to sell online, there were the makings of a “perfect storm” for ORC this Christmas season, Sheppard argues: “It’s considered a low-risk, high reward crime.”

More than two-thirds of retailers said the pandemic increased overall risk for their organization, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2021 National Retail Security Survey, and 57 percent reported a rise in ORC.

Theft of all kinds cost retailers $68 billion in 2019, admittedly a small percentage of the $4 trillion-plus in sales, but enough to make it worthwhile for a growing number of companies to conduct their own clandestine surveillance of ORC rings, according to Sheppard. They turn videos and other information over to law enforcement.

Legislation now pending in Congress could help, by requiring online marketplaces to gather and verify seller information. The bill was tied up in wrangling over details between Amazon and its competitors but the company has recently said it supports a potential compromise. (The Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is founder of Amazon.)

At the root of the smash-and-grab epidemic lies that old social-science truism: incentives influence behavior. For now, perverse incentives prevail and, unless and until they’re corrected, so will perverse behavior.