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Los Angeles creates a task force to combat retail thefts

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Los Angeles area is getting hit by another series of so-called flash mob robberies targeting luxury goods stores, including Gucci and Nordstrom.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBJECTS CRASHING)

MARTIN: Videos which have quickly gone viral show groups of robbers ransacking retail displays and grabbing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of high-end merchandise. Police say they're putting more officers on patrol. And Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who spoke with our colleague A Martínez earlier, told him the LAPD is also joining with other law enforcement agencies in the region to form an organized retail crimes task force.

KAREN BASS: We are not treating it as organized crime in the traditional sense, in terms of, like, the Mafia. But what is clear is that this is organized. You can't go in and have a group of people, 20 and 30 people, who all get out of their cars at the same time, all go in to the stores. There might be connections between the groups. This is what the task force will establish.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Now, when you spoke to NPR back in April, you mentioned how you've been studying crime trends for the last three decades. Crime cycles go up, come back down - from what you've seen, Mayor, what factors cause crime to go up?

BASS: One of the traditions is that it's summer, and it tends to be that crime kicks up in the summer. And what I certainly hope and assume is that this is going to be an anomaly. I'm just speculating that what we will find is that we have a couple of organized groups that are doing this. They will be discovered. They will be arrested and prosecuted. And then this sort of crime will go away.

MARTÍNEZ: Besides summertime, though, Mayor, what's behind, you think, these specific crimes? Not just luxury goods, but also at least recently we've seen reports of gunpoint robberies of small businesses like food trucks and taco stands around the city.

BASS: Well, I do think it's important to separate the crimes. I think those are crimes of opportunity. They're also lower-level crimes, as you can imagine how much cash would be in a taco stand. And obviously, those are terrible and need to be addressed. But the type of retail theft we are talking about, where you are stealing goods, where a purse might cost 15, $20,000, we need to look at the online platforms where these goods are being sold.

Because you're not taking Gucci bags for $10,000 and selling them in neighborhoods for 2 or 300. These individuals are putting these items online and selling them for a lot of money. We need to find out which online platforms are receiving and selling stolen goods, and those platforms need to be held accountable as well.

MARTÍNEZ: Mayor, do you have enough police officers to patrol and protect business owners and the people who patronize them?

BASS: No, we don't. I mean, Los Angeles - the number of officers are down. We are now below 9,000 officers. And we haven't been that low in over 20 years. That is why we've raised funding. We've just finished negotiating a contract with the union that goes before the city council next week. We're providing incentive pay to encourage people to join the department.

And so, we do need to expand the force. But I don't believe that that is a reason why these crimes are happening. There's not organized retail theft because the numbers of officers fell below 9,000.

MARTÍNEZ: Mayor, these videos paint a very scary picture. So what do you want business owners, shoppers, diners and tourists to know about how safe they are in Los Angeles?

BASS: Well, what I want them to know is that they are safe in Los Angeles. Crime trends show crime going down. However, when you have a spectacular-type crime happen like this, it does create a sense of fear. But one of the reasons it does is because it's exploited by the press and especially the conservative press that wants to paint Los Angeles and many other Democratic-run cities as though we are in a crisis of crime. And that is not the case.

MARTÍNEZ: That is the mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass. Mayor, thank you.

BASS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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