LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two-and-a-half minutes, in and out. Just 150 seconds to smash a store's glass door or window with a hammer, fill up a suitcase with designer sneakers, jewelry, cash or cellphones, and run outside to a getaway car.
Brazen thieves and looters used as cover mainly peaceful protests against police brutality in the Los Angeles region in late May and early June to systematically steal from mom-and-pop shops and big box stores alike, leaving behind thousands of dollars of damage.
More than 50 people have been arrested so far through the work of the regional “Safe LA Task Force” that was established to track down the criminals. Among the most notable cases, LA detectives arrested a man in connection with the attempted killing of four officers on May 31 while another investigation resulted in federal arson charges against a man who allegedly poured flammable liquid across a pizzeria before setting it aflame, causing more than half a million dollars in damage.
“Greed, hatred and a simple desire to create chaos overshadowed others’ desire to peacefully and lawfully assemble and have their voices heard,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a news conference to announce the arrests.
Reviews of text messages and social media exchanges, investigators said, showed that multiple perpetrators would arrive at stores in Santa Monica, Long Beach and Los Angeles and send one person inside to loot the business while another waiting in the car timed the crime to avoid police detection.
Authorities say some of the cases were solved thanks to tips from the community and stressed that the alleged arsonists, thieves, looters and others were not at the protests to demonstrate against police brutality. Police leaders stressed that they understood protesters’ concerns and supported their right to peacefully demonstrate.
"The evidence shows that it was prevalent and these were well-coordinated," Santa Monica Police Chief Cynthia Renaud said, noting that the suspects' use of suitcases and large bags showed they were not interested in "engaging in the protest activity, the First Amendment right to free speech and this nation’s anger over systemic injustice.”
The protests were held following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Floyd died on May 25 after Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, used his knee to pin down the handcuffed Black man’s neck even after Floyd stopped moving and pleading for air. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Los Angeles police have arrested 14 people, some of whom are suspects in multiple crimes, as they investigate 149 cases as part of the task force. Long Beach police have arrested 23 suspects and Santa Monica police have taken 19 people into custody.
Videos and photos of the unrest showed people targeting shops near the popular Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and swarming The Pike Outlets in Long Beach, where a Forever 21 store was a favored target as a steady stream emerged carrying armloads of clothing. Some even stopped to change into stolen items.
“These were not people who had a legitimate social justice message,” said Long Beach Police Department Deputy Chief Erik Herzog. "These were people who sought to take advantage of a situation and to distract from a message.”
Separately, officials are also investigating allegations that police exhibited inappropriate conduct against demonstrators during the protests. The LAPD alone has received about 110 complaints, including more than 15 involving excessive or unnecessary use of force, during the demonstrations, Chief Michel Moore said. He expects to have the first findings available toward the end of October.