- The Washington Times
Friday, December 3, 2021

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that the smash-and-grab crime wave is a hoax drew howls from fellow lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as retailers and police detailed the huge impact of organized theft.

So far, the criticism of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has come exclusively from Republicans and retailers.

Rep. Jim Banks, Indiana Republican, called the New York Democrats’ remarks “tone-deaf and offensive” to the family of the Oakland security guard who was fatally shot in San Francisco last week. He was protecting a TV news crew covering a smash-and-grab theft in the area. 

The Retail Industry Leaders Association also took issue with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez‘s assertion.

“Respectfully, the congresswoman has no idea what she is talking about. Both the data and stack of video evidence makes fairly clear that this is a growing problem in need of solutions,” Jason Brewer, senior executive vice president of communications for the trade association, said in an email. “If she is not concerned with organized theft and increasingly violent attacks on retail employees, she should just say that.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview last week with The Washington Times that “a lot of these allegations of organized retail theft are not actually panning out.”

“I believe it’s a Walgreens in California cited it, but the data didn’t back it up,” she said.

She made the claim after scores of videos documented a rash of attacks by rampaging thieves and reports from big-box stores across the country about an uptick in organized retail theft and violence against employees.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s office did not respond to a request for her to elaborate on her remarks.

“I don’t know what data she is talking about,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, Illinois Republican. “But you don’t really need much data from someplace in San Francisco or California. All you need to do is walk down the street to the CVS in Eastern Market,” he said, referring to a public market about 1 mile from the U.S. Capitol. “I’ve seen on multiple occasions when I’ve been in there buying things, someone will come in and raid a shelf and walk out.”

Walgreens said in a statement to The Times that “organized retail crime is one of the top challenges” the company is facing and that the issue “has evolved beyond shoplifting and petty theft to the sale of stolen and counterfeit goods online.”

The retail theft in Walgreens’ San Francisco stores has reached five times the chain average in the past few months. In response, the company increased security spending in the city to 46 times the average for Walgreens locations, the company said.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told reporters Thursday that the wave of organized retail theft began in early November in Chicago, New York and the Bay Area of California and spread to his and other cities.

These crimes, he said, are characterized by multiple people working together to steal merchandise while destroying property and assaulting store employees. Caravans of waiting vehicles park close to high-end retail stores, he said.

“From Nov. 18 to the 28th, the city of Los Angeles had 11 of those types of crimes involving similar [methods] where groups of suspects, working in tandem, worked to steal from high-end clothing stores, often using weapons and physical force to overwhelm and intimidate store employees and other patrons,” Chief Moore said.

Fourteen people suspected in the 11 attacks were arrested but “are out of custody, either as a result of one juvenile, or the others as a result of bailing out or zero-bail criteria,” he said.

The National Retail Federation said organized crime costs businesses an average of $719,548 per $1 billion in sales. 

This is the fifth year in a row that the figure has topped $700,000. It increased significantly from $453,940 in 2015.

Retailers say the increase in incidents may be a result of changing laws and penalties for shoplifting, according to a 2020 survey.

Three-fourths of retailers affected say these crimes have increased in the past 12 months, and more than 6 in 10 want a federal law to help combat the scourge.

“Many states have increased the threshold of what constitutes a felony, which has had the unintended consequence of allowing criminals to steal more without being afraid of stronger penalties related to felony charges,” the National Retail Foundation said in the report.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said the smash-and-grab thefts are not isolated incidents committed by low-level offenders.

“These brazen, violent crimes are committed by sophisticated criminal organizations that are involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking and other serious crimes,” he said in September. “Even during the looting we saw last year, we came to understand that some of these criminal acts were not merely opportunistic, but organized in advance.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez‘s “credibility continues to fall.”

“It’s important that people use appropriate words when something is clearly happening,” Mr. Issa said. “Law enforcement may have to say ‘alleged’ because no one has been convicted, but I think people who know better should use more appropriate words. But she’s not known for appropriate words.”

• Kerry Picket can be reached at kpicket@washingtontimes.com.

• Mica Soellner can be reached at msoellner@washingtontimes.com.

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