The Looters Are Coming!

Widespread protests and looting shocked the nation and rocked retail in 2020. As a contentious presidential election draws near, it’s time for retailers to prepare for more unrest.

IMAGE BY Chris-Owens/

Looting is a word that can evoke passionate feelings. For most, it likely conjures images of broken windows, crowds of bodies fighting over TVs, violence, and chaos. For some, it could bring a sense of pride, of people coming together to fight for a just cause. But for retailers, looting brings an intense feeling of fear: fear for their employees, their customers, their bottom line, and their livelihood.

While looting isn’t an issue retailers are forced to think about as often as organized retail crime or petty shoplifting, it is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a brick-and-mortar establishment. Smash-and-grab burglaries, too, run in a similar vein of risk and repercussions.

“[Looting and smash-and-grabs] continue to be a major issue affecting retailers today,” said Jeff Franson, founder of DefenseLite. “Storefront and brand damage, loss of inventory, and negative employee impact all lead to significant expenses to retailers both in hard dollars and in ancillary damages, including escalating insurance costs.”

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Brad Campbell, president and founder of Riot Glass, said that based on feedback from his clients, looting and smash-and-grab incidents have surpassed “any previous records” and continue to escalate.

“Our growth year-over-year has been exponential as retailers discover solutions to slow and thwart brazen crimes with physical security measures,” he said.

NGS CEO James Beale has also seen massive growth in proposal requests for his company’s solutions aimed at forced entry mitigation.

“This is still a big issue, not only in cost but also in its impact on staff and customers,” Beale stressed.

Many of these businesses that offer solutions to looting and smash-and-grabs became vital in 2020, when a rash of mass looting incidents spread across the country, documented for all to see on news broadcasts and social media.

Hindsight Is 2020

Four years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic, a presidential election, and built-up racial tensions combined to create a perfect storm of instability and unrest in the United States. All of this came to a tipping point on May 25, 2020, when police officers killed 46-year-old George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis.

Shortly after his death, a video of Floyd saying he couldn’t breathe while Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes went viral, outraging millions of Americans who had already been cooped up for months because of COVID-19.

This outrage swiftly turned into action, as tens of thousands of people swarmed the streets to protest the injustice in at least 140 cities nationwide. Many of these protesters were peaceful, but some vandalized police vehicles, and set fire to or looted businesses. As things progressed, then President Donald Trump tweeted “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and moved into an underground bunker.

The unrest continued, protesters clashed with police, and people died. City leaders pivoted from supporting the protests to working to stop them, even enforcing curfews. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey tweeted, “What started as largely peaceful protests for George Floyd have turned to outright looting and domestic terrorism.” Police departments were overwhelmed, and with retail crime falling at the bottom of the response totem pole, retailers were left to fend for themselves, with some mom-and-pop store owners guarding their stores with weapons in hand. Many businesses that looters attacked never reopened.

The vandalism and looting born out of these protests cost the insurance industry at least $1-2 billion, surpassing the 1992 Rodney King riots in LA as the most expensive damage in insurance history, according to a report from Axios.

“This was the retail storefront 9/11 event—a complete disaster in every major city across the US,” Franson said. “Retailers had spent decades protecting stores from traditional smash-and-grab crime. These efforts mostly failed miserably under this new type of criminal activity. Stores were not prepared for excessive rioting and slow or no police response time.”

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Vice President of Business Development for Indyme Solutions Hedgie Bartol, LPQ, LPC, said that these incidents sent a shockwave through the industry.

“It terrified employees and impacted retailers to the degree of shuttering stores and having to invest in more tactical solutions such as bollards, glass that is extremely difficult to break, etc.,” he said.

Campbell said the 2020 riots were devastating, not only because of the physical damage to the stores and loss of merchandise but because of the emotional toll on employees and the LP and construction managers who suffered many sleepless nights in the aftermath.

“Like a hurricane or other natural disaster, post-riot triage is chaotic and unsettling for all involved,” he explained. “Glass vendors are overwhelmed, as are board-up services, and other vendors needed to restore storefronts and other damaged property quickly. Customers are also affected by the news and slow to return.”

Tony Sheppard, MSM, CFI, LPC, vice president of retail risk solutions at ThinkLP, was working as a director of LP and ORC at a large retailer at the time of the lootings and remembers watching the stores he took so much pride in burning down to the ground.

“The biggest thing is, if you get any indication that things are going to happen, you want to close and evacuate the store so people don’t get hurt,” Sheppard said. “Monitor social media, and just pay attention to what might pop up. Reach out to law enforcement, but [in 2020] things were so widespread they didn’t have the manpower to keep up in most cities.”

What made matters worse was the fact that many stores deemed non-essential by the government had already been closed for a long period of time when the lootings began, Sheppard added, making them even more susceptible to attack.

“I believe [the incidents of 2020] underscored the need to reevaluate how retailers protected themselves from forced entry,” Beale said. “Retailers had to examine the storefront security systems and products they were using post-construction on the LP side and the measures being adopted on the design and construction side.”

Ultimately, 2020 served as a massive wake-up call for the industry.

“Retailers understand they will be hit again, and many are making the investments needed to build more robust solutions into their designs and security plans to keep the bad guys out,” Franson said. “We were never busier responding to the new demand. Today, we are working with our partners to get in front of the problem and not be reactive.”

One City’s Story

Of the 140 cities affected by the civil unrest of 2020, each has its own unique story detailing how the protests unfolded, and how law enforcement and government officials responded.

Chicago, the third largest city in America, is, of course, one of these cities. Known as a melting pot of different cultures, it is also a city steeped in controversy and racism, and it remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, making racial tensions especially high.

Another factor that intensified the impact of the protests in Chicago is that many of the city’s high-end retail stores are located in just a few areas.

“In Chicago, you have the Magnificent Mile, so you have a lot of lucrative targets in a very small area,” Sheppard said. “In other cities, things may be more spread out, or there may be fewer lucrative targets in the same area. If you’re a criminal and figuring out where you’re going to go, you want the biggest bang for your buck.”

Thankfully, the city had already started preparing for this type of event before May of 2020. By then, Sgt. David Neberieza with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) was working on a specialized unit inside the Detective Division which had started to improve how they manage digital evidence recovery in investigations—collecting video footage, analyzing cell phone records, investigating social media, etc.

“The city has a pretty intricate camera system, and that’s a big component of it all,” Neberieza said. “We refined our craft for collecting video, we established protocols, and having all of this in place propelled us to succeed when [the civil unrest of 2020] happened.”

When George Floyd was murdered in May and protests broke out in Chicago, Neberieza says more than seventy-five buildings and ten to fifteen police cars were set on fire. Afterward, he was a part of the group that tried to gather video evidence to investigate the fires. This turned out to be harder than expected, though, so the team created more protocols for handling future incidents.

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These protocols were put to the test when, just a few months later, Chicago erupted into an even more intense display of civil unrest when misinformation about police shooting a black child spread like wildfire.

“Misinformation turned into civil unrest, and we had a perfect storm that led to people looting,” Neberieza explained. “In August these groups went downtown and were hanging out on the lakefront, which turned into a gridlock. It kept growing to a point where every street was gridlocked.”

Partly because of the gridlock, CPD was unable to send additional forces down to the scene of these crimes, leading to mass chaos.

“It seemed like people were opportunists—they had tools in their cars, they were telling others to come there on social media, and people were leaving and coming back,” Neberieza said. “By Sunday morning, it had ended, and on Monday morning, the chief of detectives rallied everyone to get in a room, and right then and there, he started talking about creating a looting task force.”

Just a few days later, the task force was operational and hard at work pulling video from private businesses.

“This was a great opportunity to implement a strategy from what we had learned back in May,” Neberieza said. “We had multiple officers and detectives specially trained in working with digital evidence and created a system for recovering video, searching for footage online, working with other detectives who investigate social media, and then creating spreadsheets identifying how we were going to memorialize everything.”

One of the greatest success stories out of these efforts was the task force’s work in informing the community of its existence, and that they were looking for information from businesses that were affected.

“If they didn’t call in and create a police report, we can’t investigate them,” Neberieza added. “These big retailers have loss prevention managers, and they may report their losses to their bosses, but if they don’t reach out to CPD, we can’t start an investigation. So, we put out a call to the community with a new email address for the task force and a phone line. When that went out, hundreds of emails started coming through from close to 300 buildings.”

With all of this evidence, the newly formed task force could start completing case reports, and within weeks, they had created a smooth system for identifying criminals.

“A great part of this was working with the retailers and creating a network of communication with them,” Neberieza said. “The relationships I made in the weeds there are still helping us to this day. Building relationships between law enforcement and retail is imperative in this realm, especially because the retail crime blew up.”

Tony Sheppard was one of these retailers Neberieza formed a relationship with at this time—a meeting that Sheppard calls “a fluke.”

The retailer Sheppard was working for was using GPS trackers on products, but they didn’t have a very good success rate in Chicago at the time. He scheduled a meeting with CPD to understand what was going wrong, and the meeting turned into a two-hour crash course on ORC. Neberieza explained what they were attempting with the task force, and Sheppard shared his viewpoint as a retailer.

“It was really about sitting down and talking about what I had done for the last fifteen years working with other law enforcement agencies,” Sheppard said. “They already had a pretty good system going on; they were already bringing in people they had caught for looting. I just gave him my opinion. I was very impressed with what Chicago was doing.”

Neberieza said working on the task force really opened his eyes to what retailers have to deal with regarding crime—a realization that has continued to impact how CPD handles retail crime.

“If you don’t have a relationship with law enforcement, you won’t be successful,” Neberieza said. “Through speaking with Jac [Brittain of LPM] and Tony, going to retail conferences, etc., those connections helped everyone, and it’s a model going forward.”

In the end, Neberieza said CPD was able to make around 100 arrests related to the looting incidents in August that often led to convictions of more serious crimes.

“People think they’re stealing perfume, but they’re also dealing with financial fraud, weapons, narcotics, and more when you look at the whole picture,” he said.

The task force was consumed with investigating the August incident through April of the next year, when they finally called it. From there, they started working to establish a permanent ORC team.

“We went to the CLEAR Conference in 2021 to do a presentation and get the ball rolling, and we finally formed a team,” he explained. “The team wasn’t operational until 2022, and since then, they’ve had some great success stories. It really is a credit to all the personnel involved with the CPD ORC team from top to bottom. They have done a tremendous job—they work very hard for the retail industry.”

An Ounce of Prevention

You may think widespread looting like what we saw in 2020 will never happen again (or at least until after you retire). But the truth is that these incidents are more likely than you might think. Philadelphia just experienced a two-day looting incident last October where people armed with hammers and axes were breaking into businesses, stealing thousands in merchandise.

Many cities have formed ORC task forces since 2020, similar to Chicago, but rather than relying too heavily on law enforcement, LP professionals should take a proactive approach to protecting their stores against looting and smash-and-grabs.

Especially with what will likely be a highly inflammatory election coming this year, retailers need to start preparing for the worst, even if they insist on hoping for the best.

Installing glass that is difficult to break is one way to protect your store against looting and smash‑and-grabs.

“If you haven’t already, get ready,” advised Brad Campbell. “This problem is not going away anytime soon. In fact, it is getting worse and more widespread as more criminal groups figure out that the risk/reward of soft-on-crime policies is in their favor. We have a contentious election to get through, and the closer we get, the harder it will be to get work done in time for the most vulnerable months ahead. Business has already been picking up exponentially.”

Beale added that protecting brick‑and-mortar locations goes far beyond installing surveillance cameras—rather, buildings need to be built with the threat of looting in mind.

“As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said. “I would suggest retailers have open discussions with the various stakeholders in their facility, loss prevention, and design construction departments to evaluate what they are doing at the time of construction, and whether that is suitable or needs to be adjusted based on specific market risk profiles and historic event data.”

Beware of flashy technologies with large promises, though.

“Talk to peers in LP and find out what works and what is simply security theater,” Franson said. “Talk to vendors that have been around the block and haven’t rushed into the access control space. You can’t beat a vendor that’s got real field experience—both good and bad. Buy the systems that are going to work all the time. Don’t sacrifice performance by going cheaper. Buy once, cry once.”

Investing in physical solutions to looting is important in preparing for potential unrest, but allowing your team to work with law enforcement to stop these brazen criminals in the aftermath of incidents is equally as important.

“There was an idea that this was only a flash in the pan fad and then it would end,” Neberieza said. “One of the things I told the ORC people I was dealing with was that we need a couple things off the bat: file a police report and submit your video footage, and we need a point of contact that will meet with a detective, sign complaints, and appear in court. This type of stuff is here for a while and it’s up to law enforcement and retailers to figure it out together.”

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