The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday it is ramping up patrols of potential retail targets and coordinating with other law enforcement agencies to try and prevent — not just respond to — “flash mob” robberies.
Supervisor Janice Hahn asked Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase, who heads the department’s patrol division, to present to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday on measures taken to protect business owners and shoppers.
“Many of our residents and our retail businesses in our communities are scared by this new trend,” Hahn said. “And it places added stress on those who are trying to shop for holidays and those who are working in retail during this holiday season.”
Chase said in addition to an increased visible presence on the streets, the department’s strategy relies on the ability to quickly share information not just between 23 sheriff’s stations but with other law enforcement agencies across Southern California.
Friday’s robbery at a Home Depot at Lakewood Central Mall was a bit of a surprise, Chase said, because a hardware store was an unexpected target. However, given that the thieves grabbed sledgehammers, crowbars and hammers, likely with more crimes in mind, deputies quickly broadcast suspect information to other agencies.
The next day, Beverly Hills police arrested four suspects more than 30 miles from the Lakewood store.
Chase said shoppers and business owners should be alert but unafraid.
“We do offer the traditional advice … about remaining vigilant to your surroundings and if you see something, say something … call (your) local sheriff’s station or other local police agency,” Chase said.
However, he cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
“Just because you see some individuals walking into a shopping area with hoodies on and face masks — especially given COVID — it may not be an indicator,” Chase said.
The main clue to watch out for, based on recent incidents, is a caravan of cars pulling up outside, he said. Chase pointed to the department’s success in preempting a robbery at the Citadel Outlets in Commerce during last year’s civil unrest because of cross-agency communication about a large coordinated group of vehicles.
Supervisor Holly Mitchell reinforced Chase’s message, saying she wanted to be sure that people heard they should be looking out for cars and large numbers of cars versus “groups of college kids home for the holidays just shopping with their masks on.”
Mitchell urged residents “not to fall victim to profiling certain segments of our community.”
Hahn asked if the robberies were connected as part of a large organized crime ring.
The assistant sheriff said he had to limit his remarks given the ongoing investigation, but said, “There doesn’t seem to be a grand conspiracy … One of the detectives mentioned to me, it’s like they’re quickly organized but poorly led.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger asked the department to share more information about the young men arrested — who range in age from 19 to 22 — to see if they had prior county contact and whether more might have been to done to keep them from allegedly committing the Lakewood robbery.
In response to another question by Barger, Chase said the department is seeing some gang involvement in the crimes, which in addition to the Lakewood robbery have included several smash-and-grab attacks on Los Angeles stores in the last 10 days.
While Supervisor Sheila Kuehl warned of possible copycat crimes, Chase sought to reassure the public.
“Like LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department does have the benefit of coordinating a great amount of resources in a short amount of time,” Chase said, referring to the LAPD’s move to a tactical alert in the wake of the Home Depot theft. “The community can be assured that we will be able to respond quickly and rapidly to try and prevent this kind of activity.”