In a June 2011 “flash rob” at a Sears store in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby, Pa., two things important to retailers happened, says the city’s superintendent of police Michael Chitwood.
“Store security called the police as gang members walked in because security knew there was going to be a problem,” he says, “and the store’s video cameras caught and recorded the incident.”
Flash robberies, in which gangs of teens invade a store and steal, intimidating the staff with their numbers, have been increasing around the country in the past two years, as STORES reported last month.
Should a flash rob happen, the best defense for store personnel is to “be aware of your surroundings so you can spot the threat as it begins to materialize,” says Joe LaRocca, vice president for loss prevention with RetaiLPartners. “And resist the impulse to challenge the mob. Call the police or security as soon as possible.”
LaRocca agrees with Chitwood, who says, “the most important security tool for retailers, if they can afford it, is having a surveillance video system that police can access very quickly.”
As was the case in the Upper Darby incident, flash rob gangs are mostly composed of teens under 18. Some in the Sears incident were as young as 11 and 12, says Chitwood, whose officers caught 16 of those involved.
Everett Gillison, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor of public safety, says the city has been plagued in past years by gangs of teens randomly vandalizing, attacking and robbing citizens.
In what Gillison calls a “holistic response,” Philadelphia addressed the problem by creating programs that include “engaging the young people in various ways, creating an integrated policing strategy that includes having a watchful presence on social websites [and] creating iwatchphiladelphia.com, a website where citizens can report problems, give feedback and leave tips.” The city also implemented Operation SafeCam, a program that helps subsidize investments in surveillance cameras for businesses and residences, and launched a campaign that emphasizes the value of community and parental responsibility.
To address the boredom and aimlessness that causes some teens to gravitate to flash robs, Gillison says Philadelphia is “keeping recreation centers open later into the night. We increased activities at various venues.”
In a trend now taking place in many other cities, Philadelphia police and members of the city’s Youth Commission community service department began establishing what Gillison calls “a very strong presence” on social sites like Twitter and YouTube.
“We used their language to describe how ‘uncool’ it is to run the streets or rampage through stores,” says Gillison, “because when they did these things, they were setting themselves up to be failures.
“The information we got back helped get us some advance intelligence about what people might be doing and where they might be doing it,” he says. “And we show a strong police presence once we find out where they were going to go.”
Earlier this year, Chitwood increased the police presence around Upper Darby’s shopping center based on tips police had gleaned from monitoring social websites. Chitwood brought in 30-40 officers and stationed them around the area. The gang never materialized, though, and Chitwood says police were told later that “a couple of the gang members had done reconnaissance and when they saw all the police, they called off the gathering.”
In Multnomah County, Ore., where there were at least four flash rob cases this past spring, officials are cracking down on underage kids who take part in flash rob thefts.
A Criminal Flash Mob agreement between Portland police, the District Attorney’s office and the Office of Youth Violence Prevention signed last summer establishes public safety protocols for dealing with criminal flash mobs. It allows police who apprehend juveniles caught committing thefts as part of a social media-organized criminal flash mob to take them to juvenile detention.
The new agreement, explains Lt. Robert King, a Portland public information officer, says that instead of “just calling parents” when kids are arrested for such incidents, the District Attorney’s office has “the right to review the case and possibly charge suspects as felons.”
Some states are proposing legislation to increase penalties for ORC that could be applied to organized multi-offender theft crimes, what Washington state senator Mike Carrell (R) calls “spontaneous organized retail crimes.” Carrell introduced such a bill last January that would have made it a felony for individuals committing crimes as part of a flash mob if, with accomplices, they take or possess retail merchandise worth at least $750.
The bill, which never made it to the floor for a vote, also would have made it a felony if individuals, with at least nine accomplices, commit a retail theft with a cumulative value of at least $250 if that theft had been planned or communicated through at least one electronic medium, like cell phones.
Such legislation “is very much needed at present,” Carrell says. Flash robs may have “started out as an inner city problem, but I think they’ve spread far and wide.” He plans to reintroduce this or a similar bill when the state legislature reconvenes in January, and adds that after flash mob legislation passes and a few prosecutions occur, “the word will get out that joining a flash mob to commit a crime isn’t a good thing to do.”
Lynnae Berg, executive director of Portland’s Clean & Safe Downtown Business District and a retired Portland police officer, describes flash robs as an “emerging phenomenon that’s become visible in the last 12 months.” She says that retailers, citizens and others within the Clean & Safe Downtown Business District will be getting together before the end of this year to “discuss the concerns people may have and recommendations about who they can talk to and steps they might take to make themselves less attractive as a target.”
For Luke and Candise Cho, whose upscale apparel store Mildblend Supply Co. was victimized in a flash mob robbery this past summer in Chicago, posting their surveillance video on YouTube achieved two major goals.
“We wanted to catch the thieves and to recover as much as we could,” Candise says, “but we also wanted to see if there was a way to change that kind of mentality, especially if they think it was funny or okay to do somewhere else. So we wanted to put a face on the actions.”
Candise says the comments received as a result of the posting “reinforce how connected we are these days. Maybe that could be a preventative in the future.”
Mildblend was attacked by a flash mob while a major festival was underway; the next time there is a big event, she says, “we will hire security personnel to be at the door, check IDs and monitor.”
She also notes that members of the community — other retailers, law enforcement, the chamber of commerce and elected officials — will be meeting this year to plan increased security measures for public events like the festival “to make sure that only good things come out of it.”
Retailers caught in a flash rob “don’t want to be in a reactive mode,” Gillison stresses. “You need to be proactive. That means you have to ... get involved with your local police.”
Philadelphia’s Operation SafeCam program gives police pre-approved access to both business and homeowner surveillance videos folowing a criminal event. “They register in advance,” says Gillison, “so all the legal issues don’t have to be settled after the fact.”
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