Epidemic of smash-and-grab crime is definitely man-made

Crime is raging across the country, from violent attacks to brazen shoplifting to mob “smash and grab” attacks. The White House this week had a simple answer for the cause of this rising lawlessness: It was not “defund the police” efforts, or more restrictive policies for police and prosecutors. It was the familiar scourge cited in debates ranging from infrastructure to supply chains to tax increases — the pandemic.

The pandemic now seems to have reached the mythic levels of gods who once were blamed for everything that went wrong in life. Africans had Anansi the Spider, while the Norse had the trickster Loki. Both were known to assume different identities to wreak disorder or steal precious things.

For politicians, it is useful to have a lurking Loki to explain that social problems are not really of their making, the result of their failures. The Loki factor was evident in the press conference this week when Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy asked about the rising lawlessness seen in major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles: “Does the president still think that crime is up because of the pandemic?” White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiClyburn says he 'wholeheartedly' endorses Biden's voting rights remarks Democrats call on Biden to step up virus response New year brings more liberated Joe Biden  MORE replied that “many people have conveyed that.”

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Doocy persisted: “So when a huge group of criminals organizes themselves and they want to go loot a store — a CVS, a Nordstrom, a Home Depot until the shelves are clean — do you think that’s because of the pandemic?” Psaki replied: “I think a root cause in a lot of communities is the pandemic, yes.”

That damned Loki.

Whole stores have been ransacked by gangs, and the crime is sweeping large and small businesses alike. At the same time, shoplifting has reached such high levels in cities like San Francisco that stores like Walgreens are closing up due to the losses.

Yet, some in the media have echoed the spin that such brazen crimes are simply responses to the dire conditions caused by the pandemic. When the CBS morning news played a clip of a man nonchalantly clearing a shelf of hair-care products into a garbage bag and then riding his bike out of a Walgreens, co-host Tony Dokoupil insisted that it seems like “an act of desperation. I mean, you're not getting rich off what you take from a Walgreens, you're getting probably something you need. I don't know the details of that particular case." Indeed, the first priority for most people in a pandemic is to steal dozens of hair-care products.

It also appears that pandemic sustenance-gatherers felt compelled to grab $79,000-worth of purses from a Givenchy store in New York. Purses certainly do appear to be a COVID necessity across this accessory-deprived nation: When a gang hit Burberry’s on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, they ran past an assortment of clothing to grab high-priced purses, too.

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Crimes have gotten so bad in New York that the CEO of Bank of America this week sent out suggestions on how employees should “dress down” and take other survival measures to avoid victimization. Citibank is offering car services to avoid having to walk the streets of the city.

For years, many of these cities have seen calls to “defund the police,” and many, like New York City, have cut police budgets. Groups like the ACLU insisted that “defunding police will make us safer.” Undercover units and gun-violence units have been eliminated; police practices, from the pursuit of certain suspects to traffic enforcement, have been curtailed or stopped. Prosecutors also have faced policy and legal changes on decriminalizationparole opposition and other law-enforcement limitations.

In some cities, like San Francisco, police largely stopped responding to shoplifting calls after state law was changed to make the theft of merchandise worth $950 or less just a misdemeanor. Career prosecutors have quit there after the election of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who is blamed for a sharp decrease in prosecutions.

In New York, Democratic politicians have pushed through sweeping criminal reforms that include “clean slate” legislation that would seal criminal misdemeanors after three years and felonies after seven years. The convictions would later be expunged completely; millions of offenses erased. That includes violent offenses.

While many politicians still call for “reimagining policing,” that imagination does not extend to seeing a cause-and-effect with rising crime levels. Instead, it is the Loki effect of … the pandemic.

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The fact is that most criminals are rational actors who make a calculus of risk in the commission of offenses. The mobs hitting stores like Bloomingdales are organized gangs. Even shoplifters stealing from stores like Costco and Target are known to quickly sell the goods on the internet through fences.

In 1968, University of Chicago economist Gary Becker wrote his famous article, "Crime and Punishment,” in which he argued that criminals make calculations based on both the certainty and the severity of punishment. If you increase the certainty or likelihood of punishment, you can achieve deterrence with lower levels of punishment. Conversely, if there is a low detection rate for crime, you can deter some crimes with higher levels of punishment.

What is happening in cities like San Francisco is that both the certainty and the severity of punishment has fallen below deterrence levels.

Consider the recent brazen smash-and-grabs at malls in the city, in which almost $350,000 worth of goods were stolen. After rising complaints from citizens, the city finally moved aggressively and arrested 14 people. Yet all were immediately released upon processing under “no bail” laws. If prosecuted, they expect relatively light sentences. For other felons, this is an easy calculation: Hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods can be stolen with a low likelihood of capture and a relatively low severity of punishment.

While the Biden White House may not see the cause-and-effect realities, these felons certainly see the cost-benefit realities.

We are all living in a pandemic, but most of us do not look for a Givenchy store to grab an essential diamond-encrusted purse. That is the action of someone who is certain about the value of the purse — but not about the likelihood of prosecution.

It still remains unclear whether this pandemic was man-made or just a natural occurrence. However, the rise in crime in our cities is strictly a man-made epidemic.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.