Not new but 'more brazen': What's behind recent smash-and-grab robbery trend?

It was a routine Wednesday afternoon at the Louis Vuitton store in Oakbrook Center last month as few shoppers examined pricey purses and other merchandise at the luxury fashion store.

That changed when 14 people suddenly burst through the door, pushing past a security worker and grabbing items left and right.

Scared shoppers and salespeople fled to the back, or cowered behind a counter. The security worker tussled with the thieves, managing to pull some purses out of their arms. But members of the bold “flash mob” turned around and grabbed the items back before running off.

All told, the thieves stole an estimated $120,000 in merchandise in a matter of minutes on Nov. 17.

It's a stunning example of a growing trend in retail crime: smash-and-grabs by organized groups.

The week before, six people robbed an Ulta Beauty store in Oak Brook of $15,000 in fragrances. Mobs hit the Louis Vuitton store at Northbrook Court in Northbrook twice this fall, making off with $66,000 in items in October and another $100,000 of merchandise on Nov. 1.

And while nobody was hurt, “people are (eventually) going to get hurt. That's why prosecution and accountability are so important,” DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said.

He noted that in smash-and-grabs at some T-Mobile stores in the last year, the robbers were carrying baseball bats.

“The robberies have a huge impact on a community,” Berlin said. “People are concerned. This is not an imagined fear.”

Rob Karr, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said organized retail crime - where people plan to steal from retailers, in a variety of manners - has been around for many years.

“It is capturing headlines (now) because it is more brazen,” he said. “There seems to be a sense, at least on the part of criminals, that there is no real sanction for that (robberies and thefts).”

Proving that "Flash mob" smash-and-grabs aren't necessarily new, eight people wearing masks and gloves smashed their way into the Louis Vuitton store in Oakbrook Center in 2014 and took an estimated $120,000 in merchandise. Courtesy of the Oak Brook police

Christopher McGourty, founder and president of the Boston-based National Anti-Organized Retail Crime Association, said several factors are influencing the rise in organized retail thefts. But at the top of the list are states and prosecutors raising the amount that can be stolen before a thief faces a felony charge.

Although a theft over $300 can be charged as a felony in Illinois - one of the lowest levels in the country - the Cook County state's attorney's office in 2016 raised its felony threshold to $1,000.

McGourty said that doesn't go unnoticed by thieves.

“Criminals are aware of that, and they know that as long as they stay within that threshold, they'll only get hit with a misdemeanor if they get caught,” said McGourty, who previously spent 10 years as an organized retail crime investigator for the TJX Companies, operator of TJ Maxx, Marshall's and other stores. “The reward for them actually outweighs the risk.”

“They're not dumb,” Karr said of the thieves.

“I think a lot of it is criminals taking advantage of the climate - the political climate,” Berlin said, with criminals believing police may be more cautious in the post-George Floyd era and exploiting that caution.

McGourty said the reward comes when the thieves sell the stolen merchandise online, often making hundreds of dollars from each high-end item they steal.

“It's very lucrative,” he said. “And once they see they can get away with it at one store, they're going to do it at others.”

How to stop it

Preventing these organized thefts - especially the “flash mob” smash-and-grabs that seem to be running rampant - requires better coordination between law enforcement and store security, as well as monitoring various social media sites and other online platforms where they're often organized, McGourty said.

It also may require society to view these crimes differently.

“We've seen guns, we've seen knives ... we had one shoplifter caught with a machete,” he said. “It's definitely a problem, but our society views these crimes as nonviolent.”

Berlin said he hears from defense attorneys that their clients tell them “I'm not coming back to DuPage County.”

“We've had a reputation of being tough. We take these crimes very seriously,” Berlin said. “Ulta was a great example of how we treat it,” citing the high bails a judge set for the four adult defendants - $100,000 for three of them, $175,000 for the fourth.

  DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin Joe Lewnard/, 2019

The Ulta robbery is also an example of cooperation between police agencies. Chicago police notified Oak Brook police that a vehicle suspected of being involved in illegal activity earlier that day was parked in front of the store. Oak Brook police arrived too late to stop the robbery, but Hinsdale police chased the car on the Tri-State Tollway and arrested the suspects.

Northbrook Police Chief Christopher Kennedy told us his department is working closely with Northbrook Court's owners and retailers, who are making changes to enhance security.

“The individual retailers have changed up the way that they maintain products and the access to the products. Some stores are actually locking their doors and queuing patrons for entrance, to make it a little safer,” Kennedy said. “There's been a number of off-duty, armed police officers that now work at Northbrook Court. The Cook County sheriff's police have changed up their patrols, where often they have a car at Northbrook, and at any given time there's at least one Northbrook officer, if not several, patrolling that area.”

COURTESY OF THE VILLAGE OF NORTHBROOKNorthbrook Police Chief Christopher Kennedy

As for catching those responsible for the robberies this fall, Kennedy said investigators are sharing information with their peers in towns that have seen similar thefts and finding connections between them.

“We think there's some common offenders,” he said.

Aurora police spokesman Paris Lewbel said the city works with its two major shopping centers - Fox Valley Mall and Chicago Premium Outlet - to make sure security is aware of crimes and trends throughout the area and the nation. He said the police department also in “constant contact” with other police agencies, including Oak Brook and Chicago.

“It's not usually (just) one mall that they hit,” Lewbel said.

Asking stores to do more to prevent robberies ignores the fact that retailers invest billions of dollars every year in security, Karr said. Hiring security workers has become a challenge in the tight labor market, and stores don't want to be accused of discriminating against shoppers.

“We can't put in buzzer doors and decide who gets to come in,” Karr said. “Can you imagine if that would happen?”

Des Plaines duo honored

Des Plaines police officers Kevin Connolly, far left, and Jessica Garcia, second from right, received Life Saving Awards this week for their efforts to rescue a man badly injured in an April crash. With them are Mayor Andrew Goczkowski, second from left, and Police Chief David Anderson, far right. Courtesy of Des Plaines

A pair of Des Plaines police officers received Life Saving Awards before the city council this week for their efforts to rescue a man badly injured in a single-vehicle crash earlier this year.

According to the city, Kevin Connolly was first to arrive on the scene of the April 28 crash on the 1300 block of Jefferson Street, near the city's downtown.

He quickly found the driver, who appeared to be in shock and bleeding profusely from two substantial lacerations to his upper thigh. Officer Jessica Garcia arrived next and helped Connolly apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and keep the man awake and communicating until paramedics arrived.

“The officers' calm demeanor and quick thinking during this life-threatening situation is commendable and resulted in saving a life,” police officials said in an announcement of the awards.

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