The mobs swarm by the dozens, smashing storefront windows with rocks, boards or just a few well-placed kicks.
In the past few days, hundreds of Bay Area looters have made off with food, clothing, electronics and even dozens of cars — all within minutes. The men and women in masks and bandannas fanned out to cross city and county lines and enter downtown cores and suburban shopping centers, picking off stores before easily outrunning cops who were already stretched beyond their limits.
The scope of recent lootings, which have occurred as law enforcement contends with widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd, have prompted police to toss their old playbooks and develop new tactics on the fly. With backup from smaller local agencies tied up with their own crimes, Bay Area police are now leaning heavily on a curfew — an extreme measure some say will only further agitate a shaken community.
“Mutual aid is maxed out — there are no more cops available, no more cops coming,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. “I’ve seen looting and I’ve seen chaos, but never to this extent. Nobody has.”
The National Guard could lend some support, he said, but the soldiers are intended to stand post in case of an emergency and don’t have the authority of local law enforcement officials.
Last week, protesters in Oakland, San Francisco and other large cities around the country took to the streets to condemn the killing of Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Graffiti, shattered windows and looting have long accompanied what have been otherwise peaceful protests. Many of the crimes are opportunistic, but they’re viewed by some as a manifestation of the outrage many feel over years of police brutality toward black men, women and children.
The difference this time is what was once traditionally a metropolitan problem has gone mobile and gone bigger. Roving thieves are hitting outlying cities like Walnut Creek, Fairfield and Vallejo.
Many of the hits were sophisticated, said San Leandro Police Chief Jeff Tudor. On Sunday night, officers reported traffic clustered with coordinated vehicles, some loaded up four-to-five deep in vans.
The vehicles would hit an area in tandem, with a getaway driver dropping off their passengers and others, in various locations, acting as lookouts.
On Friday night in Oakland, dozens stormed an uptown Target as alarms blared. The groups formed an assembly line of sorts, one member running a supermarket sweep down the aisles while others waited outside for the handoffs.
In more extreme incidents, officers have been fired upon and members of the public have been shot.
On Monday in Alameda County, 122 people were booked into jail on suspicion of felonies that include robbery, burglary, looting, stolen vehicles, weapons and drugs, according to sheriff’s officials. San Francisco police recorded 66 incidents of looting during a state of emergency by Monday, resulting in 46 arrests. Only 15 of the suspects were residents of San Francisco.
While there is little doubt the crimes have escalated in number and brazenness, police critics say officers themselves are to blame for the level of community outrage.
“The first thing that forces (looting) is police instigating, pushing people back, not doing what they’re supposed to do per the rules,” said Cat Brooks, who cofounded the Anti Police-Terror Project after Oscar Grant was shot to death in Oakland by a BART police officer.
Brooks stressed that the first tear gas canisters police fired on Monday night came around 7:45 p.m. — 15 minutes before Oakland’s 8 p.m. curfew went into effect.
“Of course that’s going to escalate things,” she said. “At that moment, to meet that with police violence, it seems strategically silly to me.”
Brooks said she’s heard the claims by local authorities that most lootings are committed by out-of-town agitators, but she said that explanation is too simplistic.
“There are angry black and brown people engaging in property destruction, that are engaging in liberating things from stores,” she said. “There are white allies following the black and brown leadership of their choosing … and white kids that are coming that are living out riot fantasies.”
In San Leandro, police said at least 73 cars were stolen Sunday night from a Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership, though employees place the number at more than 100. Police spokesman Lt. Ted Henderson said the stolen cars included new Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcats, a powerful sports car priced at $60,000 and up.
A YouTube video appears to capture the revelry of the moment, as a line of glossy Hellcats rev their engines and peel out of the dealership. Henderson confirmed that the video was linked to Sunday’s incident.
The haul was so massive that patrolling officers have spotted the cars — with brand new Dodge San Leandro plates — on the roads, Kelly said. He said some evaded capture as others have been recovered throughout the Bay Area.
In Fairfield on Monday night, several hundred people suspected to be from out of town broke the windows and doors of an estimated 12 to 20 businesses, said Lt. Jausiah Jacobsen, a spokesman for the city’s Police Department. The looters targeted cell phone, electronics, liquor and clothing shops, as well as pharmacies throughout the city. Authorities made one arrest while focusing efforts on dispersing the crowd.
“It was all-encompassing in the city,” Jacobsen said Tuesday morning. “Obviously, this isn’t the normal people that want to do a protest. This was clearly a group that had no desire to do good.”
Kelly acknowledged that police were “completely overwhelmed” over the weekend.
“All we could do was basically deal with the biggest problems and then continue to go down the line,” he said. “So, the local store or the local chain retailer that was on its own, it just became not a priority.”
In Vacaville, authorities responded after 11 p.m. Monday to an alarm activation at Guns Fishing & Other Stuff at 197 Butcher Road, where 70 guns were reported stolen.
Two vehicles led police on a chase: one down Interstate 80, ending when the suspects’ car became disabled after police used spikes. Officials recovered at least 10 guns in the car, said Sgt. Frank Piro of the Vacaville Police Department.
Tudor said the destruction over the last several days has been more of a coordinated effort than law enforcement has seen in the past. Detectives believe that notifications, social media and messaging apps have all helped time the hits to inflict maximum damage before police can catch up.
“This wasn’t just a bunch of people who showed up and just decided to wreak havoc,” Tudor said, calling the recent cases a “mob mentality.”
“We know that and we understand that, and we’re going to do our best to hopefully mitigate things moving forward,” he added.
On Monday, police chiefs throughout the region had multiple conversations about how to stop the looting and put the new plan into effect that night, Kelly said.
Police said the curfew orders and redeployment plan was largely effective, and it was aided by most law-abiding citizens staying at home and leaving the roads free to chase down would-be looters.
“The tempo was different last night, way less looting,” Kelly said, noting that there was a car chase about every minute. “We were able to keep them on the run last night, and they never really had the opportunity to land. And if they did land, they didn’t land for that long.”
Brooks, however, said it’s a strategy that is likely to be counterproductive, and violates First Amendment rights to free speech.
“You can’t tell us when and where we get to exercise our constitutional rights,” she said. “All you’re going to do is have people come in waves to fight the curfew.”