The Cookie Fortune Crime Spree: When Will It End?

Historic Academy Hall in Rocky Hill, courtesy Rocky Hill Historical Society.

Some months ago the quiet, unassuming town of Rocky Hill, Connecticut was rocked by a sensational crime spree. No, not the string  of car break-ins, which recently saw thieves beating a man in his own driveway in the middle of the day . . .  but a much graver calamity that struck at the very conscience of the community and elicited the collective opprobrium of political leaders and civil rights groups across the state. It involved the scourge of mean words. Anonymous individuals repeatedly peppered some of Rocky Hill’s verdant lawns with racist fortune cookies . . . denuded of the wafer cookie shell. These tiny little pieces of paper were sprinkled around town and contained printed messages including “Black Crimes Matter” and “Defend White Communities.” The villains responsible for these crimes, in their unalloyed wickedness, lacked even the decency to conceal their messages within a crunchy cookie. Sadly, instead of banal aphorisms of ancient Eastern wisdom, there were these racist messages. There’s no sugar coating it: they were intended to hurt people’s feelings. The scenes were appalling:

Ok, sorry, that is not the appalling cookie fortune attack. That’s video of an actual crime. It’s an attempted carjacking and assault from a few days before the fortune cookie hate crime, and apparently was the instigation for the distribution of the pieces of paper.  Ever since the fortunes arrived the town exploded in an uproar of righteous indignation, not at the assault, but at the pieces of paper because apparently the real threat to the social fabric of Rocky Hill is not roving gangs of criminals with the audacity and complete lack of fear of police or community reprisal to conspicuously beat a man in broad daylight in the middle of a neighborhood, but the pieces of paper with mean words on them.

The Mayor was quick to condemn the flyers and the  Rocky Hill Commission on Inclusion sprung into action and called a special meeting, declaring gravely that the ” darkness of hate reared its ugly head in Rocky Hill last week” – as in the pieces of paper on the lawns, not the man’s head being stomped into his own driveway beside the lawn.

There was also a “Unite Against White Supremacy Rally” held. Of course, all the usual suspects have chimed in to remind people that the crime that truly matters isn’t actual violence, is speech that we don’t like:

“Incidents of white supremacist propaganda distribution in Connecticut are at a historic high,” ADL Connecticut Regional Director Stacey Sobel said in the report. “Everyone must come together to reject hate and extremism and work towards creating a better community that does not exclude, marginalize, or target any person.”

The Rocky Hill police released a statement in response to the flyers noting “This investigation is ongoing and we are currently working with our local, state and federal partners . . .” Maybe that’s just boilerplate but what federal partners? Like the FBI? Homeland security? Who knows, maybe they are just blowing smoke and trying to mollify people but according to the statement from police the Federal government is being called in over little pieces of paper.

Maybe one can think that the leaflets are racist and counterproductive and it’s hard to argue with that.  But that brings one back to the issue of why freedom of speech used to be a cherished right in the United States. Ultimately free speech isn’t about just hearing what we want to hear. It is also about saying things that make us uncomfortable because they get at ugly truths or force people to confront things they do not want to look at or deal with.  It is pretty apparent to everyone from the statements of public officials that that there was a problem with crime in that town and there’s a growing problem in towns across the state.

It is unlikely the flyers would have appeared if there was a serious attempt to deal with the issue of crime. Instead there were public officials and police leadership essentially admonishing law-abiding citizen that they are supposed to live with it.  The police chief warned law abiding citizens that they must lock their doors, lock their garage, constantly be on guard at the gas station, and watch their back wherever they go because we just have to deal with this steady-state of low-level crime as the price of anti-racist policing, of giving juveniles a second, third, fourth and fifth chance, criminal justice reform, and making every police officer walk on egg shells.

It’s either lock up the criminals, or lock up ourselves. And our political leaders have chosen the latter.  And the interviews with the mayor and police made it clear. They encouraged people not to confront the carjackers.  Hey, they might have a weapon! Lock up and hunker down.  If the attack is caught on video, maybe the assailant is locked up shortly before being released to commit crimes again, but if there is no video then forget about it. In fact, it is against police policy to even pursue thieves, even if caught in the act of stealing vehicles, which makes the advice to call the police seem all the more fruitless.

Whatever you do, don’t defend yourself, because that will elicit a swift and and ruthless police response. As the Aspetuck Review has documented before, its indulgence for criminals and zero-tolerance for citizens exercising self-defense. The end result is the hollowing out of  our communities.

One may not like the little leaflets, but one cannot help but notice that the Mayor, police chief, and every civic and religious activist seemed much more concerned about harmless speech than real violence.  The little pieces of paper hit a nerve because the political leadership are embarrassed by their own failures at maintaining public safety and a quality of life. That’s why it stings. That why the innocuous little flyers gall them. A healthy society would laugh them off, but a society lying to itself about its own disfunction cannot take a joke.

 

How Any Small Town Can Take On Amazon

On November 9, 2021, a black clad gang of shoplifters was recorded by shocked onlookers brazenly loading armfuls of laundry detergent into vans parked in front of a grocery in the town of Oxford, Connecticut. It was a smash-and-grab theft, part of a nation-wide epidemic of shoplifting that has exploded in major metropolitan areas, but also spilled into small towns.

Obviously, the perpetrators in Oxford were not risking jail time just to ensure they have clean laundry for the next decade. Often the stolen merchandise is used as a currency for drug transactions, or it is sold to one or more resellers who would eventually sell it to unsuspecting consumers.

Most consumers do not meet up with unmarked vans at night in abandoned industrial lots to buy laundry detergent at a discount, or other often-shoplifted items such as purses, razors, pain relievers, infant formula. So how would this stolen merchandise reach the end user? One way would be through easy and convenient two-day shipping right to your doorstep.

Amazon is easily one of the most powerful corporations in the world. A trillion dollar company.   Amazon owns its own newspaper and chain of grocery stores, and a cloud computing platform fighting for lucrative government contracts. Its owner plans to conquer outer space. But down here on planet earth, in the analog world, Amazon is doing little to nothing to deter criminals from using its online marketplace to launder and profit from stolen merchandise. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Retailers are spending millions a year to battle organized crime rings that steal from their stores in bulk and then peddle the goods online, often on Amazon.com Inc.’s retail platform, according to retail investigators, law-enforcement officers and court documents. It is a menace that has been supercharged by the pandemic and the rapid growth of online commerce that has accompanied it.

“We’re trying to control it the best we can, but it’s growing every day,” said Mr. Dugan.

The Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, a trade association, which Mr. Dugan heads, estimates that organized retail theft accounts for around $45 billion in annual losses for retailers these days, up from $30 billion a decade ago. At CVS, reported thefts have ballooned 30% since the pandemic began.

Mr. Dugan’s team, working with law enforcement, expects to close 73 e-commerce cases this year involving $104 million of goods stolen from multiple retailers and sold on Amazon. That compares with 27 cases in 2020, involving half the total. CVS has doubled its crime team to 17 over the past two years and purchased its own surveillance van with 360-degree cameras and a high-powered telescope.

Home Depot Inc. says the number of its investigations into these kinds of criminal networks has grown 86% since 2016 and exceeded 400 cases last year. The majority involved e-commerce. The company has doubled the size of its investigative unit over the past four years, a spokeswoman said, and the unit works alongside thousands of “asset protection specialists” stationed in stores to spot suspected thieves.

“The digital world has become a pretty easy way to move this product,” Home Depot Chairman and CEO Craig Menear told investors in December 2019, becoming one of the first executives to highlight organized retail crime. “It is literally millions and millions of dollars of multiple retailers’ goods.”

Target Corp., Ulta Beauty Inc. and TJX Cos., which includes TJ Maxx and Marshalls, have also bulked up their resources.

Complicating the battle is Amazon itself, which investigators and law-enforcement officials say is one of the biggest outlets for criminal networks, given its huge pool of potential customers and, in investigators’ view, insufficient vetting of sellers or their listings.

Retail and law-enforcement investigators say they struggle to obtain information about potentially illicit sellers from the online giant, which generally declines to provide information about sellers without a subpoena or other legal action. Other online selling platforms such as eBay Inc. are more willing to cooperate without legal intervention, investigators say.

Amazon “may be the largest unregulated pawnshop on the face of the planet,” said Sgt. Ian Ranshaw of the Thornton, Colo., police department. “It is super hard to deal with them.”

So, at the same time Amazon is undercutting local retail stores on price, it is facilitating the explosion in smash and grab larceny that is hollowing out downtowns across America. It is little comfort to see dark blue Amazon van bringing your order right to your door, knowing that that van is bypassing the dark, unoccupied storefronts whence the item was stolen.

Did Amazon shoplift your local grocery store? Of course not, but Amazon itself did not have to shoplift directly to have liability for the stolen merchandise if it’s property is used in the commission of the crime.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal action enshrined in Federal and state laws whereby the government brings an action against property – cash, an automobile, a building, etc. – where that property was used in connection with an illegal activity. The owner of the property need not have criminal liability for the underlying offense, not does the prosecuting authority (unless required by law in certain jurisdictions) need to bring brought a criminal action at all. The threshold is quite low.

Any police department and prosecutor with the will to do so could put Amazon back on its heels and  begin to put small businesses back on their feet by seizing Amazon’s assets.  There are many to pick from. The distribution centers. The vans. The trucks. The grocery stores. The pickup lockers. Without even going after bank accounts.

The revenue generated by such seizures could be used to help revitalize small businesses negatively impacted by street crime or the anti-competitive business practices of online retailers.

Generally, Amazon’s bad faith in this regard is nearly indisputable.

A brick and mortar store-owner that knowingly allowed stolen merchandise to be parked and sold out of its storefront, while reaping a cut of the profits, could expect serious criminal liability. Somehow, Amazon’s position as a multinational corporation with an online commerce storefront puts it in a different category and afforded deference by law enforcement.

Major retailers in the United States are pushing for the passage of legislation that would require high volume third party sellers on e-commerce sites to disclose their identity, contact information, and financial information (the so-called INFORM Act, currently sitting around in Congress). It’s not clear how this legislation prevents this from becoming a shell game of whack-a-mole companies. Further, the information has to be disclosed to the e-commerce sites, which have zero financial incentive to crack down on third party sellers of stolen merchandise.

It is undisputed that that the rash of smash and grab thefts in major cities and small towns through the United States are being carried out are escalating out of control. Further, it is undisputed that the stolen merchandise is being funneled through Amazon and other sites on a regular basis, in huge volumes.

Main Street will continue to be plundered until law enforcement and prosecutors gather the will to use all the laws at their disposal and begin seizing the assets of any e-commerce site suspected of involvement.  Your small community is not helpless, even against trillion-dollar multinational corporation. It is simply a matter of choosing to do what is necessary.