Jewelry Industry Raises Alarm About Off-Site Crime

Last year there was good news on the crime front, with a striking 37% drop in dollar losses from jewelry store crime. How quickly things have changed. While jewelry store crime has continued to decline this year, off-site crime has shot up dramatically.

During the first five months of 1999, there were 127 losses on the road, totaling $33 million, a 50% leap over the same period in 1998. In March, an armed escort was fatally wounded in Nashville by gang members who made off with the Rolex watches he and another guard were shuttling from Carlyle & Co. Jewelers to a nearby parking garage. In April, a police officer in full body armor died in the aftermath of a jewelry store robbery in Phoenix. He was sprayed by bullets from a robbery suspect’s SKS assault rifle when he and a SWAT team stormed an apartment where the suspect was hiding. The suspect died in the ensuing shootout.

These are the first deaths of security and law-enforcement officials in jewelry-related crime in more than eight years, according to John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance. “We’ve seen an increasingly violent, unpredictable escalation of off-

premises crime so far this year,” Kennedy says. “There is a level of craziness—a criminal killing a cop knowing that he would get killed—that we haven’t seen before.”

Other disturbing events include five home invasions in the first five months of 1999, during which jewelers and in some instances their spouses and children were held hostage and forced to give keys and security codes to criminals who stole their jewelry. There were also two telephoned bomb threats. In both cases criminals said they would detonate a bomb inside the store unless the jeweler handed over merchandise.

More violent gang members. The changing culture of the South American gangs who travel to the United States illegally has been a factor in this upsurge of violence. “The older generation had training in stealth and deception, but the younger ones don’t have the skills. They’re just violent criminals,” said Kennedy. Alexis Carpinteri, an FBI agent in North Miami Beach, Fla., who specializes in jewelry crime, says, “What scares us is the progression from hitting the jewelry store in the middle of the night to killing people for their jewelry outright in the middle of the day.”

“This is a tremendous threat to the overall security of the industry, but it shouldn’t be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Dave Downey, chairman of Downey Designs International of Indianapolis, which runs nearly 9,000 restyling and diamond events at jewelry chain stores each year. The firm spends 7% of gross revenues on security. “I can’t operate like that indefinitely,” he says. “It’s like working in a Third World country with crime in epidemic proportion and these gangs roaming at will. We have been severely preyed upon.”

The violent robberies threaten the viability of trunk shows, warns Stephen Singer, president of Stephen Singer in New York, which runs nearly 1,500 high-end estate jewelry trunk shows for independent jewelers each year. “Holding aside the most important risk—personal injury—it won’t be economically possible to run trunk shows and get employees to go out there.” And, he says, jewelers may find that “the likelihood of having salesmen call on jewelers with live goods, and the opportunity to look at new jewelry at anywhere other than a trade show, will all but evaporate.”

Singer and Downey view JSA’s new lobbying campaign as their best hope for turning the situation around so they can remain in business. (See JCK, July 1999, p. 17.) They want all sectors of the industry to participate in a long-term, sustained lobbying campaign to put pressure on elected officials and law-enforcement agents at the local, state, and federal levels. The goal: to marshal more resources to combat jewelry crime and to create stronger deterrents for criminals in the form of more convictions and prosecutions, tougher sentencing, and, hopefully, a crackdown on the fences who sell stolen goods.

“Not some poor little rich kid.” “Catch some of these [SOBs] and throw away the keys,” thunders Singer. “This is a very attractive industry for them to prey on, and somehow these people are getting away scot-free. Law enforcement needs to understand that a call for help from a jeweler or a jewelry salesperson is a big deal. They’re not being asked to take care of some poor little rich kid down the block, and they’re not just hearing from some paranoid salesman on the road. People have been seriously hurt, and lots of merchandise has been stolen.”

If the lobbying campaign succeeds, Singer and Downey hope local police departments will be able to send a squad car for extra security as they unload and load trunk show valuables—which they expect would cut related crime by 90%. While many firms already request this assistance on a case-by-case basis, they’ve been hampered by law enforcement’s limited financial resources and a lack of understanding among law enforcement agencies. Many local police departments think they’re being asked to “baby-sit,” and view jewelry losses as an insured, victimless crime.

Downey is also asking the biggest U.S. jewelry chains to contact management of the malls they’re located in to insist that mall security personnel protect an entrance when jewelry is loaded and unloaded and that they use their clout to ask local police to be there as well.

Based on a preliminary conversation he had in June with the head of Simon Property Group, Indianapolis, the largest mall operator in the country, Downey is encouraged that this will work to treat the “symptoms” while the lobbying effort addresses the underlying problem of the off-site jewelry crime wave. After all, criminals can easily find new ways to attack people who travel with large quantities of valuable jewelry. But, Downey says, “I have to correct the situation while I still have lines left.”

While many in the jewelry industry tire of crime-related stories, “we can’t be afraid to talk about this,” says Singer. “We have to talk about this as a serious, curable disease to get the law enforcement we need. And if the climate doesn’t change, I’m out of this business within five years.”

The Jewelry Industry Fights Back

As the criminals targeting jewelers become more violent, the jewelry industry itself has grown more sophisticated in its anti-crime tactics. Strategies include:

  • Lobbying. Representatives of the jewelry industry met early this month to develop a national lobbying effort to persuade political and law-enforcement leaders at the local, state, and federal levels to place a higher priority on preventing jewelry crimes—particularly crimes by the South American gangs who have made this their profession. The industry also hopes to strengthen deterrents by increasing the rate of prosecution and incarceration.

  • Conclaves. The Jewelers’ Security Alliance is holding a series of three regional conclaves (underwritten by the JCK Jewelry Industry Fund) at which law-enforcement agencies learn how to combat jewelry crime more effectively. “The purpose is to heighten enthusiasm for working on jewelry crime. And it’s also to build networking,” says John Kennedy, JSA’s president. Attending the first conclave in Orlando, Fla., in May were local and state police departments, the FBI, the U.S. Border Patrol office, security officials with jewelry firms and several Florida hotels, and Detective Mike Woodings, who heads the Los Angeles police department’s jewelry crime unit.

The conclaves alert law-enforcement agents to the techniques used by gangs, helping them master crime-prevention strategies other communities have used successfully. “When they see that they will have success, they’re encouraged to work on these cases rather than write them off,” says Kennedy. Additional JCK-sponsored conclaves are scheduled for Northern California in October and New York in November. JSA is also encouraging state jewelry associations to organize similar meetings. One held in Kansas in April attracted 100 people from 14 police departments and jewelry stores throughout the state.

  • Education. While a stepped-up role by law enforcement is critical to reducing jewelry crime, Kennedy urges companies whose employees travel with expensive jewelry to “train their personnel better in security. They shouldn’t think that the answer to their problems is increased firepower. That will only result in tragedy and death for their employees and innocent bystanders. Obviously, once the guy puts the gun to your head, there isn’t a heck of a lot you can do. But there are loads of security precautions people should take to prevent that from ever happening.”