As department stores and smaller boutiques tally their losses from a spate of brazen crash-and-grab burglaries, experts on crime and retailers have begun wondering why a tactic that makes the notion of a silently tiptoeing jewel thief seem quaint has suddenly become so common across the Chicago region.
Thieves have been exploiting that fine line between security and accessibility, slamming vehicles into high-end stores and making off with luxury loot with surprising frequency of late. What might stop burglars like the ones who drove through the windows of a Louis Vuitton in Northbrook last month or the Michigan Avenue Neiman Marcus this week, said experts, is just what might drive away customers — barriers that are less than shopper friendly.
The wave of showy break-ins — nearly a dozen in the city and suburbs since fall — have been carried out by seemingly fearless crews, and perhaps some copycats. All of them leave broken glass and considerable losses behind them.
Retail and security consultants acknowledge that there may be no way to stop these brazen crimes.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” said Richard Hollinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida who specializes in retail crime. “But this is kind of remarkable. It’s a new wrinkle to the holiday season. It’s a blast from the past.”
Crash-and-grabs, also known as “ram-raids,” have occurred across the country. In the St. Louis area, thieves have driven vehicles into jewelry stores as well as beauty supply stores that sell pricey and popular hair extensions. Gun stores in Indianapolis and a string of businesses around Jacksonville, Fla., also have been hit recently in similar style.
Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney David Williams, executive director of the Cook County Regional Organized Crime Task Force, said he believes the crash-and-grab burglaries are the work of organized groups, including thieves and gangs that operate across state lines and even internationally.
Williams said investigators are still trying to determine if some of the burglaries are connected.
“There’s definitely been an upswing in the last three or four months,” he said.
Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, called the recent rash of crash-and-grab burglaries this year’s version of the flash mob. In recent years, Michigan Avenue and other high-end retail districts saw mobs of offenders mugging pedestrians.
Last year, groups of 10 to 15 people targeted Sports Authority stores, running in and grabbing what they could before fleeing. Those crimes, according to Williams, ultimately were linked to gang activity.
“This is just flash mobs in a different form,” Triche said in an interview. Police “got hip to that method, so (offenders thought), ‘We’ll try something different.’ This is much more bold but flash mobs were pretty bold. … Gone are the days of a lone thief coming into a store and swiping a few items off a shelf.”
Crash-and-grab burglars seem to be more organized and creative with their crimes, Triche added. The merchants association classifies these events as organized retail crime. The National Retail Federation said Chicago ranks third in the country for organized retail crime activity, behind Los Angeles and Miami.
Stores still want to showcase their merchandise in windows, and they need many large entrances to accommodate crowds of shoppers. That is especially true for businesses that rely on foot traffic along high-profile boulevards. But that leaves an opening for burglars willing to use a minivan instead of picking a lock.
Unless stores lock away merchandise at the end of the business day, a strategy popular among some oft-targeted jewelers, retailers leave themselves vulnerable. And because many burglars prefer operating without detection, Hollinger said, high-profile crash-and-grabs are a departure in method. The thieves, he said, are likely weighing the advantages of quick access to a large amount of merchandise against the stealth of quieter operations.
The crash-and-grab burglars have been striking in the middle of the night, when store security staffing is low or absent and street traffic is minimal. Many of the crimes appear to have been highly organized, with clearly defined roles among crews, who clear stores of merchandise in minutes and before security alarms can alert guards or police.
Crews of six to 12 burglars scout the location and target gear before they arrive, so when they crash through the door they can find and quickly grab as much as they can, often before leaving in other vehicles, police and experts said.
Though the odds of being hit are low, stores may want to begin removing high-profile merchandise from windows or unprotected shelves at night, said Bill Leap, vice president of security services for Chicago-based Titan Security Group, which provides security guards, electronic security and consulting on best practices.
“They’ll do it as often as they think they can get away with it,” he said.
In the end, retailers have to strike a balance between security and shopping in comfort, Triche said.
“What we don’t want to do at the end of the day is respond to every possibility of how someone can steal,” she said. “You want to have the security … but you want to do it in a way that’s discreet at the same time.”
Some organized groups have been tied to gangs or to professional thieves who operate across state lines and on an international level, Williams said.
Thomas Brignall, an associate professor of sociology at Lewis University in Romeoville, said that the bold, aggressive style of the burglaries reflects a disillusionment and general lack of concern for others.
“It’s a shock-and-awe tactic,” Brignall said.
Dominic Rizzi, the police chief in Yakima, Wash., and a retired Chicago police lieutenant who once oversaw property crime investigations, agreed part of the crash-and-grab style is about making a statement.
Leap and Hollinger said the recent wave of crash-and-grabs may be a combination of professional organized retail crime crews and copycats.
“What we’re seeing now, I believe that this is just a sharing of information, ‘Hey, this is a good idea. Let me do it,'” Rizzi said.
Tribune reporters Mary Ellen Podmolik, Jeremy Gorner and Steve Schmadeke contributed.