UPDATED 05/19/11 7:12 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) - Shoplifting arrests of youth have seen a jump in the police district that includes the opulent Magnificent Mile lately – even though retail-theft arrests have fallen slightly as a whole.
In the Near North police district, which stretches from Fullerton Avenue to the Chicago River and from the river’s North Branch to Lake Michigan, overall retail-theft arrests were down about 2 percent in the first four months of 2011, compared with the same period last year. But juvenile shoplifting arrests were up at least 10 percent, said Kenneth Angarone, commander of the district.
Most of those juveniles were taken to the police station for “station adjustments” and released to their parents, Angarone said.
The juvenile theft spike gained a high profile earlier this year when stores on North Michigan Avenue were repeatedly targeted by large groups of young shoplifters that had organized into flash mobs.
In January, 11 teens yanked clothes off the racks of The North Face, Filene’s Basement and AX Armani Exchange and ran away with the loot, but were quickly arrested. Police believe they coordinated the attack through text messages. One young thief yelled “Snatch!” to initiate the shoplifting. Another shouted “meet you on the Red Line!”
Police said they have been monitoring social networking sites, boosted the presence of officers on North Michigan Avenue and worked with stores to improve security.
As a result, there have been fewer cases of flash mobs targeting Mag Mile stores in recent months, Angarone said. But smaller groups — of two or three teens at a time — are continuing to shoplift in the area, he said.
“Is there an epidemic? No,” said John C. Chikow, president of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association. “Is there an issue? Absolutely.”
Chikow said Chicago’s shoplifting problem mimics what’s going on in other big cities.
At a mall outside Milwaukee, parents must escort their teens on weekends because of rampant shoplifting there.
In St. Louis, Las Vegas and Philadelphia, text-messaging “flash mobs” of youths have swooped into stores, stealing merchandise and running away.
But Chikow said juvenile shoplifting attacks remain “periodic” in Chicago.
“It’s not like every Friday and Saturday night kids are running into a store on the Avenue and taking stuff,” he said. “But yes, this still happens.”
Chikow said he thinks such shoplifting is the latest form of thrill-seeking for juveniles. He pointed to one teen who was arrested for shoplifting recently. When his parents picked him up at the police station, they said they were perplexed because they had taken him to the same store to shop the previous week.
“They said he didn’t have a reason to steal anything,” Chikow said.
Angarone said parents need to watch for their kids coming home with clothes or other merchandise they cannot afford. Parents also need to monitor their kids’ social-networking activities, he said.
“This is a parental problem more than anything else,” Angarone said.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward includes the Mag Mile, said some of the shoplifting involves a “highly coordinated attempt by adult criminals to recruit juveniles” — especially young women. Prosecutors said that is possible, but no adults have been charged in connection with juvenile flash-mob thefts. Still, officials are watching closely to see if any of the loot is winding up on eBay or secondhand stores. Reilly said the problem is not limited to the Magnificent Mile, but affects shopping centers across the city. “It’s the latest brand of retail theft,” he said.
The flash mobs in the downtown area have sometimes presented a greater threat than just retail theft. CBS 2’s Suzanne Le Mignot reported last week that in the three weeks prior, there had been more than 35 arrests for wilding and attacks by flash mobs.
Sources say the lakefront has been targeted by large groups of teens, carrying out wilding incidents. Two people riding bikes on the path at North Avenue Beach were recently surrounded by about 100 teens.
Both were knocked off their bikes, then thrown into Lake Michigan.
Sources say flash mobs have also entered the McDonald’s at Chicago Avenue and State Street. About 70 teens stormed into the place a few weekends ago. A source says the eatery was closed down for three hours after the incident.
And of course, the flash mobs focused on theft have continued their rampage. The North Face, Filene’s Basement and Express along Michigan Avenue have also been the target of flash theft mobs recently. Teens enter a store, steal as much as they can in seconds, and leave.
The Chicago Sun-Times contributed to this report, via the Sun-Times Media Wire