Wayward youths come to Lenox Square in Buckhead looking for True Religion.
Once they find an unguarded pair of the pricey brand-name jeans, they break one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shall not steal. The pants cost upward of $300 a pair. Atlanta Police Officer C. Smith works the mall during his afternoon shift and said the jeans are popular among the shoplifters he arrests.
“I’m perfectly fine with Wranglers for like $20 or $30,” Smith said. “I don’t understand why anybody needs to pay $300 for jeans.”
Theft from Lenox was one of Buckhead’s biggest crimes in 2012, according to statistics released by the Atlanta Police Department. Lenox, owned by Simon Property Group, is one of the South’s largest shopping malls, containing more than 250 stores. It attracts shoppers from all over.
The crowded mall with a constant stream of traffic and exhilaratingly expensive merchandise also lures greedy fingers. Shoplifters don’t think twice about grabbing merchandise and making a run for it.
The thieves have a harder time getting their loot out of Lenox, Smith says.
While Buckhead’s police boundary, Zone 2, is Atlanta’s top reporter of property crime, the Lenox beat had more thefts classified as “other larceny” than any other beat in the zone. Other larceny usually means thefts that don’t involve unlawfully entering property. Crimes such as shoplifting fall into this category.
Atlanta Police annually release data about all Part 1 crimes, offenses police are more likely to know about and are reported more frequently.
In 2012, Part 1 crimes in Zone 2 rose by 8 percent over 2011. It was the only zone in the city with an overall increase.
Zone 2 is divided into 13 beats. Beat 210, which includes Lenox, had the most Part 1 crimes of any beat in the zone, a statistic driven by its large number of “other larceny” crimes.
Lenox Square spokeswoman Carly Dennis said the mall has a “close working relationship with APD” but would not discuss the crime statistics in depth.
“We do not comment on the specific security measures the mall implements daily to keep shoppers safe,” she said.
Zone 2 commander, Maj. Van Hobbs, compiles Part 1 crime data in a thick binder. He studies it, looking for trends that can help him develop strategies to keep Buckhead’s crime rate low.
Hobbs said out of more than 443 “other larcenies” in Beat 210 reported in 2012, 345 were at Lenox. The commander said the beat’s numbers improved from 2011, when there were 503 other larcenies reported, 401 of which were at Lenox.
It should be noted that Beat 210 does not include Phipps Plaza, which is near Lenox Square. Phipps is in Beat 208 and that beat generated 269 other larceny reports.
Broken down further, Hobbs said shoplifting at Lenox in 2012 accounted for 177 of the other larcenies reported, down from 255 in 2011.
Hobbs attributes the drop in numbers to changing police tactics. He said Deputy Chief and Field Operations Division Commander Ernest Finley Jr. looked at all areas in the city that were hot spots for shoplifters.
“What he did is, we have recruits that get hired and prior to going to the academy, we put them where we need them,” Hobbs said. “We put them in those areas as extra eyes and ears.”
The recruits can’t make arrests, but their presence and reports to sworn police officers keep shoplifters in check, Hobbs said.
Police catch many of the suspects at the mall. The larger anchor stores, like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, have their own security known as “loss prevention officers.” The mall hires off-duty Atlanta police officers to patrol the rest of the property.
“Obviously we’re not going to catch everybody,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs said some of the Lenox Mall thieves are professional criminals who see the potential for arrest as the cost of doing business.
Smith doesn’t arrest many professionals on his shift, which starts in the afternoon and stretches late into the night. The people he arrests are mostly juveniles.
“They’re just coming in, taking MARTA, and then they don’t have a ride back,” Smith said. “Parents usually
don’t know why their kids are even in Buckhead.”
Smith said he’s often tasked with taking juvenile offenders home after they’ve been arrested. The rides in his squad car can be quiet, aside from the constant crackling of radio chatter.
“I myself try not to preach too much,” Smith said. “I try to let them know that it’s not accepted and they need to get off this certain area that they’re in, but I’m not the kind of person that likes to keep beating somebody down and telling them how they’re the worst person and they need to change everything that they’ve ever done because of this. I just let them know it’s a bad decision and they need to not do it again.”
These offenders seldom do commit the same crime twice, or at least they don’t do it at Lenox, Smith said. He said juveniles convicted of shoplifting receive a criminal trespass warning, banishing them from the mall for two to three years.
So who are these kids?
Smith said their grades are usually below average and they don’t participate in after-school activities. Their relationships with their fathers are often strained or nonexistent, he said.
“I talk to them about it,” Smith said. “They seem to be lost, most of the time.”
The kids’ motives aren’t complicated, he said.
“There’s not really a set mold for shoplifters,” Smith said. “I feel like the shoplifter will just take something because they think they can get away with it at the time. I’ve had somebody have a pocketful of $500 in bills and they took $200 worth of stuff.”
Smith said while True Religion jeans are popular on the five-finger discount list, there are the weirder heists, like the kid who stole a $2,000 espresso machine.
Hobbs said food, electronics, cosmetics and batteries are targets. Smart phones and other gadgets like iPads are also favorites, Hobbs said.
Often the shoplifters work in teams, using a distraction method. One will chat up a sales associate while the other nabs merchandise or the employee’s phone.
“People are pretty careless with their cellphones,” Hobbs said. “They’ll leave them on the register.”
Sometimes the thieves walk into open break rooms and steal wallets and purses. It’s always about opportunity and opportunities abound at Lenox.
Smith said he often feels he’s fighting a losing battle as he drives his car in circles round and round the mall looking for trouble.
He can’t tell if he’s made any real difference. Smith said there have been fewer calls recently compared with the ferocious shoplifting in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
“There’s definitely been less lately than I’ve had to deal with in the past,” Smith said.
But is it a long-term trend?
“You’ll get your answer pretty quickly come summertime when the kids aren’t in school,” Smith said.