A suspected looter carrying boxes of shoes runs past National Guard soldiers in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles on June 1, 2020. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, Calif.—While videos of smash-and-grab robberies in California circulating on social media are attracting attention worldwide, lawmakers say finding solutions to stop the crimes is challenging.
Though acknowledging action is needed, some say viral clips are distorting reality and suggest that retail theft crimes are difficult to count.
“What is happening in our communities is unacceptable and we must act with urgency,” Assemblyman Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Hollywood) said in a Dec. 18 press release. “But we must also look at the facts and find the solutions that will actually work.”
The California State Assembly's Select Committee on Retail Theft holds its first meeting in Sacramento, Calif., on Dec. 19, 2023. (Travis Gillmore/The Epoch Times)
Complicating understanding is a lack of consistent reporting across the retail industry, according to experts.
Seeking to address the issue, the California Assembly’s newly formed Select Committee on Retail Theft met for the first time Dec. 19.
“The retailers are screaming for help,” committee member Assemblyman Juan Alanis (R-Modesto) told The Epoch Times after the meeting. “Everyone has their own ideas, and hopefully by the end of these hearings, we can identify some solutions.”
Established by Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) in October, the 11-member panel—chaired by Mr. Zbur and consisting of nine Democrats and two Republicans—is tasked with identifying solutions to what lawmakers describe as an “ongoing crisis.”
“The Select Committee was formed to do just that—to listen to the experts and those in our communities who are impacted, to discern the facts, and to understand the best path forward,” Mr. Zbur said.
Encompassing shoplifting, and commercial burglary and robbery—where violence or threats were used to intimidate employees—retail crime is significantly impacting the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Los Angeles County, according to a Dec. 12 committee press release.
“This is impacting our constituents,” committee member Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) said during the hearing. “They’re feeling the brunt of this in higher costs … and feeling unsafe in public spaces.”
With larger counties experiencing higher levels of theft—Magnus Lofstrom, policy director and senior fellow for the Public Policy Institute of California, told the panel that commercial burglaries and robberies are on the rise in 21 and 25 of the 58 counties across the state, respectively.
Highlighting the challenge of obtaining solid data, he noted that changes in reporting, with some businesses no longer calling police for some thefts, are impacting statistics.
“As with any data, there are important limitations … to incidents reported,” Mr. Lofstrom said.
Rachel Michelin, president and CEO of the California Retailers Association, notified the committee that some stores are told by law enforcement not to call unless a threat of violence occurs.
A business in Sacramento was warned that if misdemeanor theft reports continued, the store would be cited with a public nuisance complaint, further leading to “skewed data,” she said.
CVS items among nearly 14,000 products recovered from a retail theft ring investigation in Glendale, Calif., on Aug. 31, 2023. (Courtesy of California Highway Patrol)
Retailers are asking lawmakers to address changes in state law that occurred with the passage of the 2014 ballot initiative—Proposition 47—designed to lessen prison populations by reducing some felony drug and theft crimes to misdemeanors.
Of particular concern are what are known as aggregation of thefts—where values of stolen items can be combined to reach the $950 felony threshold—and petty theft with a prior charge that allows the filing of felony charges for repeat offenders.
Both were eliminated by Prop. 47 and would require another ballot initiative to reestablish.
Some prosecutors in California argue that existing laws, including Prop. 47, are limiting prosecutors’ options and allowing many crimes to go unpunished.
“Even if you can charge them with a felony, the jails are so crowded they won’t serve any time,” Ivy B. Fitzpatrick, managing district attorney for Riverside County, told the commission. “With no real consequences for repeat offenders, we’re seeing a rise in retail theft crimes.”
One person charged with 54 burglary offenses served a total of seven months in county jail, she said.
Fewer sentencing options for prosecutors have also reduced the number of individuals participating in drug treatment diversion programs—down 67 percent since Prop. 47 passed while homelessness statewide spiked 42 percent—Ms. Fitzpatrick told commissioners.
Law enforcement officials said the issue is negatively impacting communities across California, as repeat offenders are exacerbating the problem.
“When we see the same people committing the same crime … it suggests the system is broken,” Alexander Gammelgard, Grass Valley Police chief and president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said during the hearing.
A close-up view of chains securing a freezer full of food in a Walgreens store in San Francisco on July 18, 2023. (Lear Zhou/The Epoch Times)
Balancing recent legal reform efforts with the need to address the retail theft problem is a complex process, according to the assembly speaker.
“It’s important that we preserve our successful criminal justice reforms,” Mr. Rivas said during the hearing. “But at the same time, we need to ensure that we are delivering solutions to businesses and consumers.”
The new Chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), said he recognizes the nature of the problem and is looking for creative fixes.
“Inaction is unacceptable,” he said during the meeting.
While experts told the panel Prop. 47 was playing a role in the rise in criminal activity, Mr. Zbur, the panel’s chair, expressed reluctance to single out the voter initiative.
“I’m circumspect on pulling Prop. 47,” Mr. Zbur said during the hearing. “We should be thinking about smart solutions and out-of-the-box thinking.”
The four-hour-long hearing designed to gather information included about a half hour of public comment, with more than a dozen individuals voicing their opinions.
The committee plans to hold meetings in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2024, on dates yet to be determined, to give stakeholders an opportunity to provide input, according to Mr. Zbur.