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Newsom Announces $350M to Battle ‘Organized Retail Theft,’ Like Union Square Smash-and-Grabs

Written by Ben Christopher at CalMattersPublished Dec. 18, 2021 • 9:27am
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When it comes to law and order, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants California voters to know that he feels your pain—no matter what the statistics say.

Newsom announced today he will be asking the Legislature to spend more than $350 million to ramp up crime-fighting efforts, with the bulk of that cash set aside to help local law enforcement agencies crack down on “organized retail theft.”

The governor is responding to a raft of flash-mob-style shoplifting incidents that struck retailers in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas—and that inspired a cascade of headlines about out-of-control crime. 

The announcement is the latest indication that California’s Democratic leaders want to talk tough on crime, even as they defend a decade’s worth of reforms aimed at making the criminal justice system less punitive and discriminatory. 

“We’re not walking back on our commitment in this state to advance comprehensive reforms,” the governor said at a press conference at a California Highway Patrol post in Dublin. “But we also have to recognize this moment we’re in. We have to recognize people’s fears and anxieties.”

Indeed, Newsom stressed that his announcement was motivated more by growing public concern about crime than the crime itself.  

“I could regale you with facts,” the governor said, noting that despite an apparent increase this year, crime remains at a relative historical low across the state. Earlier this week the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California reported that both violent and property crime are up after a dip last year in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Oakland. The rates are now roughly “similar to pre-pandemic levels.” 

“Stats mean nothing in terms of your feelings,” the governor said.

Newsom went to special lengths to defend Proposition 47 in particular. The 2014 voter-backed initiative reduced penalties for certain low-level offenses, including theft and shoplifting of less than $950, from felonies to misdemeanors. For nearly a decade, conservatives have predicted that the loosened rules would result in a crime wave. Last year, tough-on-crime activists, along with California’s retailers, put a measure on the ballot to ratchet some of those penalties back up. The measure failed by 24 percentage points.

But the latest series of high-profile shoplifting raids has revived that debate. Today’s announcement was applauded by the California Retailers Association. “We need to send a message to these theft rings that California will not tolerate organized crime,” association president Rachel Michelin said in a press release.

Senate Republican leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita said in a statement: “It shouldn’t have taken increasing homicide rates, widespread news reports of smash-and-grabs and pleas from Californians for Democrats to come to this realization.”

Palmdale Republican Tom Lackey, vice chairperson of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, called the announcement “too little, too late.” He also lambasted the Democrats as “the party of defunding the police.” 

Heading into an election year, Newsom’s budget proposal, most of which would provide additional funding to police and prosecutors, appears intended to leave voters with the opposite impression. Similarly, earlier this week, elected Democratic leaders in both San Francisco and Los Angeles proposed spending more on police overtime. 

If the Democratic Legislature approves the governor’s proposal:

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  • $255 million in grants would go to local law enforcement agencies over the next three years to combat organized retail crime;
  • $30 million would go to local district attorneys over three years and $18 million would create a new statewide anti-theft team at the attorney general’s office;
  • $25 million would fund local gun buy-back programs;
  • $20 million would assist the National Guard to intercept fentanyl and other drugs at the Mexico border; 
  • Some money would be reserved to cover uninsured losses of small businesses that have been ransacked by thieves. The written plan doesn’t specify an amount, but Newsom pegged it at $20 million.

The package will be included in the budget proposal that Newsom will unveil early next month. 

Assembly Budget Chairperson Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, welcomed the package, saying in a press release that looked forward to “teaming up with the Administration and our law enforcement partners on crafting an effective strategy to stop these sophisticated shoplifting rings.”

Standing beside Newsom at the press conference was Attorney General Rob Bonta. Newsom appointed Bonta as the state’s top law enforcement officer in March, plucking him from the Assembly where he was one of the body’s most liberal members on criminal justice issues.

Opposition to crime is a bipartisan instinct, Bonta said today. “I’ve not met anyone who wants to be a victim of crime—Republican, Democrat, it doesn’t matter.”

Newsom also restated his commitment to crafting a bill that would allow California citizens to sue manufacturers and distributors of prohibited semi-automatic rifles and build-it-yourself “ghost gun” kits

That proposal is designed to be a blue-state rejoinder to a Texas law that gives citizens the right to sue anyone who “aids and abets” someone in getting an abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed that law to stand, effectively permitting a legislative end-run around what was believed to be a constitutionally protected right under its 1973 Roe v Wade decision.

“It is a Pandora’s box,” Newsom said of the Supreme Court’s decision not to immediately strike down the Texas law. But, he added, “to the extent this decision is used to put womens’ lives at risk, we’re going to use this decision to save people’s lives by addressing the issue of gun violence here in the state of California.”

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