GONZALES — On an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, amid the holiday fervor at two of the region’s most bustling shopping hubs, a covert operation unfolded. Amidst the sea of shoppers, inconspicuous officers blended seamlessly lurking in the crowd, cloaked in everyday attire and behind common SUVs, their objective was clear — stop the surge of retail theft.
It’s called Operation Sleigh Ride. The Department of Homeland Security is partnering with local law enforcement in Ascension, Livingston and East Baton Rouge Parishes to flood popular shopping centers to protect you during the busiest time of the year for shoplifting.
What is retail theft?
The alarming trend of smash-and-grab incidents have taken on a new dimension as viral videos of these criminal exploits flood TikTok feeds. Operating like a coordinated force, gangs of thieves swarm stores, strategically dividing to overwhelm staff, seizing merchandise, and hastily fleeing the scene. While this phenomenon has become increasingly prevalent in major cities like Los Angeles and New York, its also become a growing problem in south Louisiana.
And it’s costing retailers upwards of $100 billion in losses.
It’s happening at shopping-rich areas like the Tanger Outlets in Gonzales, the Mall of Louisiana, Juban Crossing and Siegen Lane Marketplace. Law enforcement believe the problem was exacerbated during the pandemic when perpetrators were less likely to go to jail for property crimes and has only gotten worse due to social media videos.
“It probably started about three or four years ago when retail theft became very intense,” James Poe, a detective with the Gonzales Police Department told UWK. “We would have people coming in from all over the state of Louisiana, from Alexandria to Lafayette or New Orleans. They would come in as groups, go into the stores, and split up. They would grab stacks of clothes and run out the door with them.”
“They’re learning how to cheat the criminal justice system”
It has become a frequent problem at Tanger Outlets Gonzales. Poe, who is on the Homeland Security task force for Operation Sleigh Ride, says stores like Coach, Polo Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Nike have been overwhelmed by thieves over the past three years. They partnered with the Gonzales Police Department and the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office to combat the problem.
But Poe admits these criminals are smart. He says the thieves are typically organized, go into stores with a plan and get away very quickly. Most of the time these thieves are from out of the area and are educated on the law.
“They’re learning the system. They’re learning how to cheat the criminal justice system the best they can,” he said.
The thieves also know that by selling the stolen merchandise online, “behind a wall of anonymity” makes it hard to prove where the stolen goods came from. The stolen goods are showing up on marketplaces and even Amazon.
“You got a Polo shirt with a Polo tag, well, guess what? Macy’s, JCPenny’s, Dillard’s all have the same thing. So where does it come from? You know it’s stolen, but how do you pin it to a store? And they’ve realized that. They’re capitalizing on that.”
“Cat and mouse game”
Law enforcement is now trying to outsmart the thieves by being more spontaneous in crackdowns like Operation Sleigh Ride. Homeland Security invited Unfiltered with Kiran along for an undercover operation at Tanger Outlets Gonzales where we were given access to how law enforcement is working with shopping centers to combat the growing problem.
We watched as Poe and a team of undercover agents, who UWK is protecting their identities, casually walked Tanger Outlets. We watched as officers tracked shoppers they believe could be potential shoplifters, monitored their movements and noted their shopping habits from store to store.
For hours, they unsuspectedly patrolled Tanger: every move meticulous and planned yet nimble enough to allow the officers to blend in.
“There’s a lot you watch for on the cat and mouse game. It’s literally a cat and mouse game,” Poe said.
After several hours of patrolling the outlet mall, the team did not make any arrests. But, they still consider the operation a win.
“All of our success isn’t measured in just arrests,” said an undercover Homeland Security Investigator. “Obviously, part of this is the prevention aspect. If no one shows up and commits any retail theft, I think we’re good as well, because then maybe, the message got out.”