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Shoplifting incident with 80 suspects is worst they've seen, retired police say

Quick-hit robberies continue to target high-end retail stores and pharmacies in California’s Bay Area, officials say.

A shoplifting incident involving 80 people accused of grabbing items and rushing out of a Nordstrom store in California in under a minute Saturday night is among the worst such episodes they’ve heard of, two longtime police officers say.

“These type of smash-and-grabs I have not seen in my 45 years in law enforcement,” said Andrew Scott, who was the police chief in Boca Raton, Florida, from 1998 to 2006. “I haven’t seen smash-and-grabs in such a mass scale. ... They ultimately blitzkrieg a particular location. ... And in the matter of minutes, in just a couple of minutes, they can literally steal hundreds of thousands of dollars of product.”

About 80 looters descended on the Nordstrom at about 9 p.m. in the city’s Broadway Plaza, Walnut Creek police said. An employee was pepper-sprayed, and two others were punched and kicked, a police spokesperson said. The robbers were in and out of the store within a minute, police said. Officials didn’t specify the estimated value of the items that were stolen.

The incident is among a cluster of quick-hit robberies that have been plaguing high-end retail stores and pharmacies in the San Francisco area all year.

The shoplifting was “clearly a planned event,” police said.

Timothy T. Williams Jr., who spent 29 years with the Los Angeles Police Department before he retired from its Robbery-Homicide Division, said he has also never seen so many suspects accused in a shoplifting incident.

“That’s a hell of a lot,” Williams said. “Businesses need to invest in displays that are shatterproof. That will be a deterrent. They can’t go in and do smash-and-grab because nothing is smashing for them to grab.”

Walnut Creek police said three people were arrested in connection with Saturday night’s incident.

NBC Bay Area reported that a jewelry store in Southland Mall in Hayward, California, was targeted Sunday afternoon by about nine people who used hammers to smash cases before they fled. Police in Hayward and Walnut Creek, which is about 30 miles northeast, didn’t return requests for comment Monday about whether the incidents might be connected.

Walgreens announced last month that it would close five stores in San Francisco because of organized retail theft.

“Retail theft across our San Francisco stores has continued to increase in the past few months to five times our chain average” despite large increases in security, Walgreens spokesperson Phil Caruso said in a statement at the time.

In an incident that seemed particularly shocking in San Francisco, a group of shoplifters in July was recorded on cellphone video sprinting out of a Neiman Marcus in Union Square lugging “several tens of thousands of dollars” in stolen merchandise, police said.

The same month, city leaders pushed back against critics who argued that the shoplifting incidents were out of control. City officials released a midyear public safety report, which, according to police data, showed that overall thefts were down by 9 percent in the first six months of the year compared to the same period last year.

San Francisco police didn’t respond to a request for comment or updated theft statistics Monday.

Although the thefts have been clustered in California, they have also occurred elsewhere.

More than a dozen people in a Chicago suburb were recorded on security video Wednesday afternoon grabbing bags and wiping shelves clear at a Louis Vuitton store.

The stolen merchandise was estimated at $120,000, Oak Brook police said in a statement.