Shoplifting in Chicago

How police are dealing with the rise of flash shoplifting mobs and organized shoplifting.

It’s November 1, the kind of chilly, early fall day that makes you want to snuggle up with a good book. But in a conference room at J.C. Penney in a western suburban mall, the energy level is through the roof. Approximately 48 law enforcement personnel have gathered for the start of a two-day sting. Words scrawled on a whiteboard spell it out: operation whoville 2 – blitz.

“Remember, this is a bit like fishing,” Williams tells me. “We don’t know if we’re going to get any bites or not.” But it seems likely something will come of this operation. Private security for all of the mall stores mingles with the police from North Riverside, Cicero and Chicago. There are state police involved, too. Some are in uniform but most are dressed in undercover casual: dad jeans, thermal waffle shirts, Bears sweatshirts, ball caps. They will be covering several malls in the area today. Nextel phones are passed out, passwords established and numbers set for text messaging.

“A lot of this is about building relationships,” Williams says. “The local police and the stores get to know we’re here and that we’re serious, and we just build on that.” We are walking through the mall now, waiting to see what will happen. It will be a long day, from noon to 9pm, and then the same all over again for Williams tomorrow.

The hours go by quickly at first, but then start to slow. Williams passes some time at the Starbucks in the center of the mall, chatting with various law enforcement and store security. There is a central common room for coordinating all the information, but it’s small and stuffy. It feels better to be out in the mall.

Then the reports start to come in: a young man arrested for trying to shoplift at an athletic gear store. A woman taking kids’ clothes. Another athletic gear arrest.

At the end of the two-day blitz, shoplifting arrests total more than 20. And two weeks later, Williams is off to head up another operation somewhere else—perhaps in a Whoville near you.

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