August 14, 2022
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Region sees uptick in retail crime

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The tri-county region hasn’t seen any of the “flash mob” burglaries that have grabbed headlines in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, but 2021 did bring increases in commercial burglaries across the region.

Data gathered by the Business Times from county sheriff’s departments shows increases in commercial burglaries in areas patrolled by sheriff’s deputies in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Complete crime statistics for the region are not available yet for 2021, as the federal government typically releases them months into the following year.

Dream Dinners in San Luis Obispo after a break-in last year. (courtesy photo)

In Nipomo, Lauren Grik Persall’s phone woke her up one morning in February 2021 shortly after 2 a.m. The alarms were going off at Dream Dinners, her business in the Ferrini Square shopping center in San Luis Obispo.

“I saw the number and I knew it was the alarm company,” she said.

Motion detectors inside her business were activated, and the thieves had smashed the glass doors.

“I think they had it down to a science,” Persall said. “They hit us and then two other stores all in the same night.”

She described the break-in as “more damage than theft” and said she returned to business as usual after she cleaned up the next day.

“I felt empathetic and my heart broke for the people who felt they were needing to do this,” she said.

Rachel Michelin, the president and CEO of California Retailers Association, said any business in the state could be affected by commercial burglary. Retailers in California report that the problem is “worse and constant,” she said, noting that many incidents go unreported.

“This isn’t a new issue,” Michelin said. “We’ve been dealing with this for a while.”

In the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction — the county’s unincorporated areas, including towns like Nipomo and Cambria as well as more rural areas — there were 71 reported commercial burglaries between Sept. 1 and Dec. 16, 2021, up from 61 in the same period of 2020 and 55 in the same period of 2019.

In the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction — the unincorporated areas of the county, plus the cities of Buellton, Carpinteria, Goleta, Guadalupe, and Solvang — there were 138 commercial burglaries reported in the first 11 months of 2021. That’s well above the total of 109 for the full year of 2020 and ahead of the pace of 2019, when there were 142 in the entire year.

In Ventura County, commercial burglaries in the sheriff’s jurisdiction — the unincorporated areas plus the cities of Camarillo, Fillmore, Moorpark, Ojai, and Thousand Oaks — jumped from 18 in from September through mid-November 2020 to 62 in the same period of 2021. The 2021 figure was nearly double the 32 commercial burglaries reported in that 10-week span in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

All three sheriff’s departments told the Business Times that burglaries in their jurisdictions have not been of the smash-and-grab “flash mob” variety, pulled off by large groups, often when the stores are open.

In Ventura County, restaurants have been the most frequently targeted businesses, Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Tim Lohman told the Business Times in an email.

In wake of recent high-profile retail theft across California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has directed the California Highway Patrol, which has an Organized Retail Theft task force, to increase its presence near major retail sites. Newsom also announced funding in his 2022 state budget proposal to combat organized retail crime.

The California Retailers Association supports the governor’s ideas, but thinks there’s more to be done.

“Now we need to address the policy mechanism, and how do we look at policy to make sure we’re able to go after these crime rings,” Michelin said.

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, introduced legislation that would give county district attorneys new authority to prosecute organized retail theft and sale of stolen property that crosses into their jurisdictions.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 1613, is in the state Assembly Rule Committee as of Jan. 10. It will be referred to the Assembly Public Safety Committee for a hearing that likely won’t take place until March or April, said Irwin’s chief of staff Brett Williams.

A report released in November by the Buy Safe America Coalition and the Retail Industry Leaders Association found that law enforcement and asset protection specialists believe the “availability of anonymous online marketplaces has provided an easy way to sell stolen goods, and that the growth of these marketplaces coincides with a recent surge in organized retail crime that puts both employees and customers in harm’s way.”

Mission Thrift in San Luis Obispo was broken into in the early morning hours of Jan. 4, by thieves who smashed the store window.

The case was a “very unfortunate crime,” San Luis Obispo Police Chief Rick Scott wrote in an email, as the thrift store provides support for the Old Mission Catholic School, as well as much-needed basics for the community.

Scott said the police department urges community members to remain vigilant and “to be sure to safeguard valuables, preventing crimes of opportunity and always, if you see something, say something by calling 911 for emergency assistance.”

In Ventura, the city’s downtown spans several blocks of office, retail and entertainment spaces. Kevin Clerici, executive director of Downtown Ventura Partners, said the organization is always looking at ways to keep the retail community safe, as well as customers, visitors and others.

A few years ago, DVP’s Park Ambassador program launched in collaboration with the city of Ventura. Civilian employees in uniforms keep an eye out for crimes and work with local law enforcement agencies and service agencies, among other duties.

“Any time you have a large presence, that helps deter crimes of opportunity that maybe you’re seeing in some of these other areas,” Clerici said. “Having a team of individuals that can respond creates a safer environment.”