The Coachella Valley has seen a rise in smash-and-grab robberies in the past five years.
Shop owners and employees are on guard as the threat of violence and theft is very real.
In Karen Devine's I-team report “Smash and Grab Crackdown” she uncovers what desert cities and law enforcement are doing to deter big city crime from invading our otherwise peaceful and safe tourist destination.
The Gold Store on South Palm Canyon in Palm Springs was targeted by two thieves with masks and hammers in broad daylight back in August. It was a scene of broken glass and twisted metal as a jewelry case was smashed and precious merchandise stolen.
“It took like exactly 5 seconds, from the time they opened the door, break the table, it’s 5 seconds, and there was a shooting and it was over,” said store owner Edward Elder.
Elder, alone in the store, protecting himself and his property, pulled out his gun and fired shots at the suspects, injuring one of them. Elder has owned jewelry stores for decades mostly in big cities where he says he expects this type of crime but says criminal organizations have grown and they’re bolder.
“There’s always some idiot taking advantage of someplace they don’t know about, they don’t investigate before, and this is his mistake," said Elder.
Palm Springs police chief Andrew Mills says he’s frustrated as nationwide we’re seeing this trend of smash and grabs, he says the crime is not held to the highest standard of criminality, saying it’s almost a free pass.
“You have small businesses who are trying to make a living, you know and it’s not like there’s large margins anymore. And, then when somebody comes in and steals property or damages the store, it’s really rough on them, said Mills.
He says the city has been proactive in its efforts to protect residents, tourists and businesses and that a recent multi-million dollar grant from the state will help further their efforts to curb crime.
“That’s gonna install cameras downtown, 3M TAPE on the windows, operations by police, and a rehab function. So there’s a lot that goes into that grant."
We requested five years of stats on commercial burglary and robbery calls specifically along Palm Canyon.
- 2018: 4
- 2019: 5
- 2020: 23
- 2021: 14
- 2022: 16
- 2023: 5 (Jan-Sept.)
You can see, a big jump in in 2020 with 23. A decline in 2021 and 2022 but still significant numbers. For 2023, stats only go through September.
Down valley in Palm Desert, multiple stores in the El Paseo Fashion District have been hit. Including high-end stores like Gucci, twice robbed of merchandise in a two-week period. In this case, the suspects ran in, grabbed handbags, and took off.
Over at the shops in Palm Desert, they have a security team on-site, but that didn’t stop armed robbers from entering the mall, and smashing glass with hammers, causing a commotion, scaring shoppers and stealing jewelry.
Palm Desert City Councilmember Jan Harnik is well aware of the uptick in these types of crimes and says the city has implemented several programs including paying merchants to install security cameras. She says education is key.
“We have a great group that gets together and meets and talks about these issues and the Sheriff’s come out and talk to them about how they can harden their stores and make them not look like a bullseye for criminal activity,” said Harnik.
When asked if she thought some merchants were ready to leave because of an increase in smash and grabs, Harnik said, "No I don’t. I think they’re looking at things a little differently. And, we’re happy to help them with that and we’re going to work as we always do, as a community, with the city with the sheriff’s with our merchants and find the solutions that we need.”
Jewelry store owner Brandon Boswell says the city and the Sheriff's Department was helpful and supportive after his shop was recently the target of thieves in a brazen smash and grab last month. His front window broken, cherished items taken in mere seconds.
Boswell in a statement said, "The safety of my friends and clients when visiting me is my utmost concern, as such we have added security measures including an open carry armed guard every day.”
A look at the combined number of commercial burglaries and robberies on El Paseo since 2018 shows there's been a definite increase in crime.
2018 14 burglaries 0 robberies
2019 12 burglaries 1 robbery
2020 17 burglaries 0 robberies
2021 11 burglaries 3 robberies
2022 19 burglaries 4 robberies
2023 7 burglaries 1 robbery
The good news is that in all three jewelry store smash and grab suspects have been caught and some merchandise has been returned. Law enforcement revealed the thieves mostly come from out of the area and are a part of a criminal network.
With preventative measures in place and new technology soon to be implemented, Palm Springs Police Chief Andrew Mills and Palm Desert City Council Member Jan Harnik have a message to criminals scoping the valley as an easy target
“Understand, if you come here to Palm Springs, there’s gonna be a tough row to hoe,” said Mills.
"This is not going to be tolerated in Palm Desert," said Harnik.
Just outside the valley at the Cabazon Fashion Outlets they've seen an increase in burglaries and robberies over the past five years with 26 burglaries and 9 robberies. The highest numbers last year.
The governor has awarded over $267 million to law enforcement agencies. Riverside County's District Attorney's office received just over 2 million dollars. The City of Palm Springs received The Organized Retail Theft Prevention Grant which is approximately $4.5 million.