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Bay Area cops, retailers grapple with ongoing spate of brazen smash-and-grab assaults

<i>KPIX</i><br/>City officials placed a truck in front of a mall as a barrier to prevent thieves from quick access to getaway vehicles.
City officials placed a truck in front of a mall as a barrier to prevent thieves from quick access to getaway vehicles.

By Shawn Chitniss

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    WALNUT CREEK, California (KPIX) — City leaders and shoppers said Sunday they are worried about the growing trend of mass robberies around the Bay Area as police look for the majority of the 80 or so suspects responsible for looting a Walnut Creek Nordstrom store on Saturday.

“I hope this doesn’t happen because this is not safe for the community and all of us want to be in a safer neighborhood,” said Mohini Soodan, a regular customer at the store. “We have family around.”

Police also alerted businesses and residents that looters who targeted a Nordstrom store Saturday may be planning more thefts on Sunday evening.

The police department “is actively monitoring intelligence that indicates the group of thieves who stole from the Broadway Plaza Nordstrom last night are considering similar activity later today,” Walnut Creek police said in a community advisory posted about 3:30 p.m. Sunday on social media.

“This has not been confirmed, but out of an abundance of caution, we’re alerting businesses and residents to be prepared,” police said in the advisory.

The department is calling in additional officers and reserves, and some stores may consider closing early or taking other precautions, police said.

Police announced they arrested three suspects in Saturday’s heist with dozens more still at large. One of the three arrested was a felon in possession of a firearm.

The mayor and Walnut Creek police tried to reassure the public that their community was safe on Sunday.

“This was a terrible crime and I was horrified by what happened regardless if it’s in Walnut Creek or anywhere else. This is a horrific crime,” Mayor Kevin Wilk told KPIX on Sunday. “We need to make sure that everybody feels safe when they come to Walnut Creek, whether they’re working here, living, shopping, dining.”

Police say this was a planned approach by the suspects who wore masks, dark clothing and brought crowbars as well as pepper spray to the store. Police are hoping more witnesses with cellphone video come forward.

“We absolutely have resources and we also have mutual aid if we need to call on it,” said Lt. Holley Connors with the Walnut Creek police department. “We will be as ready as possible to prevent any of these from happening again.”

KPIX security analyst Jeff Harp said these crimes keep happening because there are not enough consequences for the culprits. He worries about additional steps retail stores will have to take if the situation does not improve.

“They have to hire security guards that are costing $25, $30, $45 an hour so, suddenly, it becomes sort of a break-even project to establish a business,” Harp said Sunday. “What point do we finally say ‘you can’t come into Macy’s until you’ve been cleared’ … and what that’s going to mean? I don’t know but certainly these department stores are having a big challenge now.”

The Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce said its members are concerned about more robberies happening as the holiday shopping season begins. Businesses were grateful to see so many people out during the day buying products despite the latest robbery.

“People are yearning for the opportunity to be outside, we want them to know that it’s going to be safe, we don’t want this sort of thing to happen again,” said Bob Linscheid, the president and CEO of the chamber. “Our belief is that we will band together and do what we can to increase awareness about how wonderful Walnut Creek is.”

Mayor Wilk said residents will immediately notice more police on duty at these shopping destinations and acknowledges that the punishment needs to be more severe to deter someone from stealing from stores.

“I’m concerned too, this was a brazen robbery. We need to work with the DA and encourage as many of these charges be made and prosecuted and then convicted and put behind bars,” he said. “We can’t just have people that are arrested and then put back on the streets shortly after. These people need to pay the price for what they’ve done and we need to find them all. ”

Harp added that, as these organized crime rings grow with the help of social media, law enforcement agencies will continue to struggle in their response. The focus remains on violent crime at a time when agencies across the country, including the FBI, are struggling to keep up their staffing numbers.

“It’s a mess. There has to be some recourse for someone who breaks the law,” Harp said. “I think that is the bottom line: there has to be consequences for someone who breaks the law.”

Shoppers who were aware of what happened at the mall the night before said it did not stop them from coming to this location but, with more visits in the weeks ahead, they will take steps to be careful.

“I think you have to be vigilant of where you’re shopping and what time of day you’re shopping,” said Greg Whitt. “If people are scared and afraid to shop around I think that is a real shame, don’t let them beat you, keep shopping.”

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