Robbed in a Flash: Assessing Risk for Mass Smash and Grab Incidents
The heists have been brazen, fast, and organized. On 26 November 2021 alone, a crew of eight stole $400 worth of sledgehammers, crowbars, and hammers from a California Home Depot; a group pillaged a Bottega Veneta boutique in Los Angeles; and 30 people looted a Best Buy in Minnesota, grabbing armfuls of electronics, according to The Washington Post.
Flash robs—also known as multiple offender crimes, organized retail crimes, or flash mob robberies—involve large groups of people participating in a “smash and grab” theft in retail stores during business hours. The events are not new, and it has been reported since the early 1990s, primarily outside the United States. In one high-profile example on 18 October 1992, hundreds of young Brazilians ran in a mass to rob beachgoers in Rio de Janeiro, sparking panic and a wave of “trawler” incidents or concerns. But as recent thefts have demonstrated, the trend is alive and well in the United States now. Why?
The increased frequency of flash robs could be attributed to myriad reasons, including overwhelmed police departments, reductions in criminal penalties as a result of criminal justice reforms, and overburdened prosecutors unable or unwilling to make such crimes a priority.
It could also be attributed to how easy social media platforms make it to organize a flash rob, coordinating multiple perpetrators without detailed planning that could have been recognized by law enforcement. This also allows for multiple and geographically disparate events to be organized, creating confusion and taxing a coordinated response.
The COVID-19 pandemic may be a contributing factor as well. Currently, wearing a mask—concealing one’s identity—is not only acceptable but expected. Customer traffic is lower, either by choice or because of mandated lockdowns, and labor shortages mean lower numbers of employees. These changes result in far lower witness potential and a reduced deterrent. The pandemic has also created supply chain issues, thus increasing the resale value of stolen goods.
Currently, wearing a mask—concealing one’s identity—is not only acceptable but expected.
Combined with the significant increase and ease by which stolen merchandise can be proffered to a broader set of buyers and the anonymity of the seller, these tactics are considered possible contributing factors to the manifestation of the flash robbery trend in the United States.
Given that none of the above can or will be resolved anytime soon, the real question is: What can the retail community do?
First and foremost, retailers should strive to understand the exact threats and vulnerabilities that exist at their individual retail locations. Threats to an urban storefront versus a location inside a suburban mall can be significantly different. Real-time threat monitoring—including social media—can also assist in detecting possible changes in the threat environment earlier in the planning stages.
In any case, data can provide retailers with the information needed to deploy permanent countermeasures or provide them with the time and means to counteract an imminent event.
Employees and Customers First
Of paramount importance is the protection of employees and customers. On the proactive front, this should include the training of employees to never resist or interfere with a flash robbery under any circumstances, yet they should also be trained to capture relevant information for the post-incident investigation, such as the descriptions of individuals—especially possible leaders—and vehicles.
Further, employees should be trained in security awareness, which is simply a matter of them paying attention (e.g., implementing a “no smartphone use” policy when on shift); knowing what to look for; and knowing what to do in the event of an incident.
For example, do employees know what the signs of potential robbery or violence look like? Are they empowered to and educated about how to report and manage a potential issue (or how not to from a liability standpoint)? Do they understand how to operate the electronic security controls put in place? Most importantly, can they recognize suspicious behavior and trust their instincts in the detection of anomalous behavior?
Do employees know what the signs of potential robbery or violence look like?
For customers, it’s very much about the retailer also providing a physical environment that feels subconsciously safe and secure, complemented by staff who take a customer-centric approach to safety and security.
On the physical side, retail operations should consider implementing CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) principles, creating a physical environment with security in mind. It’s not an additional expense, but rather an alignment of existing expenses to security objectives. For example, natural sightlines, natural access control, creating territorial reinforcement, and keeping a well-maintained space are all necessary investments, and there’s no additional cost in aligning these elements to reinforce safety and security. Specifically, lighting, landscaping, architecture, colors, textures, and signage encouraging customers to “See Something, Say Something” can be designed to create a secure environment that is still considered welcoming to customers, but sends a message to undesirables that they do not belong there.
Security staffing. The presence of security guards within the store, especially armed, should be carefully considered, as they may only increase the potential for tension and violence during a flash robbery. That is not to say guards should be dismissed, but post orders could be changed to prohibit conflict during a flash rob incident. Exterior security patrols, however, whether by private security or public law enforcement, create both a deterrent to flash robberies, as well as an assurance to customers and the public.
Product placement. The placement and protection of product should be scrutinized. The quantity of products on display should be minimized and well-spaced. Back of house areas, where large volumes of product are stored, should be secured.
High-value products should be placed up high or in hard-to-reach locations, and displayed in the back of the store, in lieu of at the front where they are more easily accessible to smash and grab types of attacks. Display cases constructed of more hardened materials to protect against a brute-force attack should also be considered. The front façade of stores should incorporate attack-resistant glazing or retrofitted with films that provide similar protections.
Security technology. Electronic security systems also play a role. Retail employees should be equipped with a means to immediately notify law enforcement of flash robberies, with duress buttons (also known as panic buttons) or pendants strategically placed or worn on their person. Well-placed high-resolution security cameras with dynamic range technology designed to provide evidentiary-quality images of persons entering and leaving the location can assist in subsequent apprehension, while also serving as a deterrent.
Technological security solutions are growing exponentially with the incorporation of video and audio analytics using artificial intelligence. Such technology allows for the automated identification of suspicious behavior, crowd congregation, high-volume activity, and weapons detection, thus assisting in early identification of flash rob characteristics.
Audio detection and analytics can also be applied to identify glass breakage, gunshots, or excessive levels of specific noises such as screaming. In addition, radio frequency identification systems and GPS tracking have advanced such that product locations can be automatically monitored live, not just at points of entry or exit.
Proper procedures. Implementing a “two-person rule,” which assures the presence of at least two employees during critical times (such as store opening and closing), can protect against both internal and external threats. A lockdown procedure should be designed if a flash rob is identified prior to breaching the store perimeter, so entry doors can be automatically locked to prevent entry yet allow for free egress by occupants. Initiating a lockdown can also include local visual and audible alarms, while simultaneously notifying local security or law enforcement.
Ultimately, security needs to start at the top.
After-incident actions. Finally, retailers should think about recovery planning. Ensure insurance provisions are in place and identify construction/repair supplies and services are identified in advance so operations can resume as quickly as possible after a flash robbery.
Ultimately, security needs to start at the top. Senior management of every organization should document, support, fund, and adhere to security programs and policies that contribute to the security and safety of their employees and patrons, thus setting the example for the organization. It also starts at the beginning—are employees properly vetted prior to being hired? Remember that the internal threat in the retail environment can be as much a vulnerability as the external one.
John V. Philippi, CPP, PSP, regional vice president with Guidepost Solutions, is an expert in global corporate security with more than 30 years of experience. His work at multinational organizations has focused on protecting firms from negligence liability through the development of best-practice policies and procedures, design of effective and efficient systems and operations, and detailed coordination of systematic implementation.