The numbers tell one story, but recent messaging from the Los Angeles Police Department appears to be telling another.
Robbery, burglary and theft are down in Los Angeles compared to 2019, according to the latest crime data from the police department. But in recent weeks, police have indicated those types of crimes are rising, pointing to incidents involving “smash-and-grab” shoplifters who descended on high-end shopping districts at the height of the holiday shopping season.
At a Dec. 2 news conference, L.A. officials announced the arrests of 14 people in smash-and-grab crimes and retail thefts from Nov. 18 through 28.
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore described the incidents as a wave of “violent and dangerous crimes.”
“The rash of these smash-and-grab type crimes have placed community members and store employees in significant danger due to the violence that’s associated with them,” Moore said then.
Moore told the Los Angeles Police Commission on Dec. 7 that the crimes were part of a larger "surge" of violence that was "expanding," and he said the LAPD and commission need to "draw particular focus and laser attention to it and amplify it. Because that's the only way we get results."
Statewide, California Gov. Gavin Newsom this month pledged $300 million to combat retail theft.
Critics of City Hall and the Los Angeles Police Department say the smash-and-grab incidents, while alarming, have been happening for at least the better part of a decade. They argue the incidents have yet to create anything approaching a spike on a graph and are being used to scare residents, lobby for officer raises and decry justice reform.
“We’re not saying crime doesn’t exist,” said Ricci Sergienko, an organizer with the People’s City Council, a coalition of social and climate justice organizations. “We’re just saying the cops’ own statistics don’t match their narrative.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti earlier this month urged calm in the wake of the retail crimes, saying California as a whole has experienced historically low crime rates in recent years.
“There’s no cause for alarm,” Garcetti said at the Dec. 2 news conference. “This is still a 10-year safest decade, probably of our lifetimes. ... We also don’t want it to blow up where everybody thinks that suddenly we’re seeing statistics way beyond what the actual numbers are.”
Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and editor of the data-driven news site Crosstown LA, compared robbery and theft in November to all the months since 2015 and found many were worse, some far worse.
Kahn's analysis found that since 2015, 10 months have had more reports of theft than November 2021. He also found that robberies have been higher in the months between January 2015 and the end of 2019 than in both 2020 and 2021.
“These types of crimes that Moore is talking about are generally either robbery or shoplifting,” Kahn said. “Both are down since Covid. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been high-profile, big-haul incidents.”
LAPD data shows that incidents of theft (not including motor vehicle theft), robbery and burglary have been down in the last few months.
In the stretch between Oct. 24 and Nov. 20, there were 2,034 incidents of theft, 757 robberies and 1,034 burglaries, according to the police department data.
In the time period that followed, Nov. 21 through Dec. 18, there were 1,648 thefts, 731 robberies and 930 burglaries, according to the data.
Robberies and thefts have increased slightly since 2020, when crime dipped in many categories amid pandemic lockdowns. Experts believe 2019 is a better year for crime comparisons.
Robbery is up 5.2 percent this year compared to this point in 2020, burglary is down 7.6 percent and theft is up 0.7 percent, recent LAPD data shows.
Compared to this point in 2019, robbery is down 12.7 percent, burglary is down 7.1 percent and theft is down 31.3 percent, according to LAPD data.
But the department says coordinated thefts are on the rise and worth its full attention.
Police leaders argue the recent wave has been unprecedented and overwhelmed retail workers and shoppers with a sense of helplessness.
Department officials have acknowledged that some crime categories — such as robbery, burglary and theft — are down, but they argued rising gun crime, with a peak week of robberies in December, has helped set a permissive tone for shoplifters. The department also said some of the thefts had yet to be reflected in the data.
There’s been a sharp uptick in shootings in the last two years, and gun-related arrests have risen, roughly consistent with a national trend correlated to increased gun sales since the pandemic began.
Violent crime is up 4.1 percent since 2019, LAPD data shows.
Robbery is categorized as a violent crime, particularly when paired with a firearm. Moore said on Dec. 2 the retail thieves were "often using weapons and physical force to overwhelm and intimidate store employees and other patrons."
A list of the 14 people arrested shows allegations including grand theft, burglary, receiving stolen property and driving without a license, but no violent crimes.
The department has said four of those arrested were subject to recommended charges of robbery, though the LAPD's paperwork does not indicate so. The LAPD suggested the suspects could be accused of Estes robbery, in which a person is pushed, shoved or intimidated while defending property during a robbery.
The district attorney has yet to charge any of the suspects.
The LAPD also noted that there have been some incidents involving minor violence, including the apparent targeting of a security guard with bear spray during a Nov. 24 smash-and-grab at a Los Angeles Nordstrom.
Alliance for Safety and Justice founder and President Lenore Anderson said the police department's focus on a purported crime wave highlights the ongoing battle for justice in California.
She sees the LAPD’s framing of recent crimes as another hurdle on the path toward less incarceration, greater racial parity in courts and boosted government spending on things other than badges and guns.
In recent weeks, L.A. police officials have been calling for a more than $200 million increase in funding for the next fiscal year and have cited the retail crimes as an example of why they need a bigger budget.
The chief has said more than 2,000 hours of overtime authorized since November was necessary to help catch the retail thieves.
Police Commission President William Briggs said he wants the 12 percent boost to help stop “roving bands of individuals going to these smash-and-grabs.”
Police union officials say a minor cut to the budget in 2020 paired with temporary salary freezes unleashed mayhem on city streets.
“Residents and businesses are afraid of the crime tsunami enveloping our city, and they are fearful that they may be followed home and robbed or randomly shot,” Tom Saggau, spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents the department’s rank and file, said by email.
Last year, City Council reduced the LAPD’s $3.1 billion budget, more than half of L.A.’s discretionary spending, by $150 million, putting overall police spending roughly at $3 billion.
A small portion was restored by individual council members, and the council agreed to give the LAPD a 3 percent increase in 2021.
The council has a June 1 deadline to approve the fiscal year budget and a possible 12 percent increase for police.
"It's still a safe city," Moore told the commission. He later added, "We're going to call out what we believe, what I believe, is necessary as an antidote to continue treating this issue."