Security Coalition Reaches ‘Critical Stage’

In its battle against vicious South American theft gangs, a security coalition comprising representatives of all sectors of the jewelry industry has racked up some initial successes in the past year and a half. The FBI and local law-enforcement agencies have made a number of arrests. There’s strong congressional support for more funding for jewelry crime enforcement. And there were fewer robberies of traveling salespeople in the first five months of 2000 than in the same period in 1999.

But the battle has just begun, say members of the coalition. “Our strategy seems to be working, but there is still a very difficult road ahead,” says John J. Kennedy, president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance (JSA), which organized the coalition.

The most important goal now is congressional approval of $2 million for 10 FBI agents devoted solely to jewelry crime investigations. “We’re at a critical stage,” says Kennedy. “Active support by the industry is vital.”

Articles and letters. The security coalition, which represents manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, media, and associations, has waged an impressive campaign over the past 18 months. JSA formed the coalition to get more help from both the trade and the federal government to fight a terrifying epidemic of robberies committed by South American theft gangs against traveling jewelry salespersons and trunk/remount show personnel. In 1999, the worst year to date, there was a 44% increase in losses ($76.5 million in 323 incidents in 30 states) and a sharp rise in violence, including murder. (In comparison, retail jewelry crimes and losses overall declined for the year.)

The coalition launched its campaign with a high-profile media blitz. The formerly publicity-shy JSA began giving interviews to the trade and consumer press about the rise in violent jewelry robberies on the road. By the end of 1999, articles about the organized gangs and their crimes against traveling salespeople had appeared in many national news publications, including Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Kansas City Star, and the Atlanta Constitution. By May of this year, there had been articles in major papers in every region of the country.

In November 1999, as part of its “Jewelry Industry Crime Awareness Week,” the coalition launched a major phase of its strategy—a massive letter-writing campaign aimed at Congress. Legislators received more than 10,000 letters—from individuals, companies, and organizations—describing how the industry is being terrorized and asking for their aid. Every member of Congress was contacted; more than 40 responded and asked the Justice Department or the FBI to investigate the problem or take action.

When Congress and the FBI “began being bombarded by letters and newspaper clips from every region [about the theft problem], they saw this was a grass-roots movement by jewelers and sat up and took notice,” says Kennedy. The successful letter-writing campaign also enabled JSA to identify both sympathetic legislators and jewelry people interested in the issue who have ties to Congress.

Anti-crime funding. By January of this year, the coalition had finished devising its strategy for getting federal help. On-the-road jewelry robberies are already federal crimes under laws governing interstate commerce. What was needed was more funding and additional agents to enforce those laws. “So, we took a budgetary route,” says Kennedy.

JSA developed a proposal to add $2 million to the 2001 federal budget for the FBI’s Jewelry and Gem Theft program. Part of the additional funding would pay for 10 more FBI agents, who would focus on the South American theft gangs terrorizing the jewelry trade. Some of the money would fund research to determine the identity and nature of these gangs, and some would go toward an investigation of the gangs’ interstate mobility and international operations as well as efforts to pinpoint where, how, and to whom the stolen jewelry is sold.

The publicity, letter writing, and strategy planning were followed up on March 2 with “Jewelry Industry Security Day,” when 18 coalition members, divided into five groups, met face-to-face with dozens of senators, representatives, congressional staffers, and officials of the FBI and Justice Department. (The intensive lobbying event was planned and coordinated by the coalition’s lobbyists, Thelen, Reid & Preisent, a Washington, D.C., law firm.)

“It’s important to keep this issue on Congress’s radar screen,” says Kennedy. “These meetings solidified support and brought the industry’s concerns personally and directly to legislators and their staffs. It means something to them when an important businessperson in their district—like [coalition cochairman] Bob Bridge of Ben Bridge Jewelers in Seattle or Ron Harder of Jewelers Mutual Insurance in Wisconsin—takes the trouble to come and tell them personally about a compelling issue like this, where people are being robbed and killed by criminals who are in this country illegally.”

The coalition focused on members of subcommittees that deal with the FBI and on members of House and Senate appropriations committees. Coalition members gave copies of JSA’s funding proposal to the legislators, and most promised to support it.

Coalition members also spoke with high-ranking officials of the Justice Department and the FBI, who promised their support. Federal prosecutors, for example, have been advised to prosecute jewelry crimes more vigorously, a message Attorney General Janet Reno was expected to reiterate in May at a national meeting of federal attorneys.

By late May, the coalition’s lobbying was enjoying some success. Its $2 million proposal was on the agenda of the appropriations subcommittees, with inclusion likely in the federal budget bill to be voted on this summer or in early fall. “Thanks to the cooperation of many people in the industry, we have an impressive roster of support from leading senators and representatives, and our lobbying firm is optimistic that the extra appropriation for the FBI will be passed,” said Kennedy in late May.

Lobbying for the proposal is continuing through the summer, with follow-up phone calls, letters, more visits to legislators and subcommittee chairman, and an industry petition drive (calling on Congress to approve the additional FBI funding), which JSA launched at The JCK Show in Las Vegas in early June.

FBI task forces. On the enforcement front, the FBI and local and regional law-enforcement agencies have stepped up their efforts against jewelry crime. Fighting crimes against the industry, of course, is not a new mission for the FBI. Its 10-year-old Jewelry and Gem (JAG) program was set up following a rise in jewelry thefts in the 1980s. JAG’s database collects, assesses, and monitors jewelry crimes, while the JAG office tracks such crimes nationwide and coordinates investigations by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies. In February, for example, the FBI office in Tucson, Ariz., worked closely with local authorities during the Tucson gem shows and provided what one FBI official called “protective investigative resources,” which included information on theft groups. FBI officials and agents also regularly attend national and regional JSA security seminars on industry problems and issues.

This year, however, in the wake of the coalition’s lobbying campaign, the FBI has become more active in the area of jewelry crime. (While the bureau is “naturally responsive to the legitimate and valuable oversight of Congress,” says John Walker, JAG’s director, it won’t comment on the effect that lobbying Congress has on its own activities.)

Since February, JAG has set up jewelry crime task forces—which collaborate with local law-enforcement agencies—in Los Angeles (the city with the most jewelry theft and the largest number of violent attacks), Chicago, and Miami, wrote A. Robert Walsh, legislative counsel in the FBI’s Office of Public and Congressional Affairs, in a letter to Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). The Los Angeles project has three special agents and a full-time analyst who deal exclusively with jewelry crimes. Chicago has two agents, and Miami has one. (These seven are in addition to the 10 agents the coalition is requesting.) While the FBI’s response to the theft gang problem is “in a development stage,” wrote Walsh, the task forces in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami should “begin to positively impact the victimization of traveling salespersons.”

Tougher enforcement. In fact, there has been an increase in arrests and prosecutions by federal and local authorities. “We’re seeing a lot of gang members arrested,” says Kennedy; he adds that these criminals “face serious prosecution and long sentences.” While FBI officials are reluctant to discuss specific investigations, JAG’s John Walker tells JCK, “We’ve been very active this year and have had a number of successes”—by which the FBI means convictions, not just arrests.

Overall, according to JSA figures, there were 50% fewer on-the-road thefts in the first five months of 2000 compared with figures for the same period in 1999 (71, down from 147), and smaller losses ($15 million vs. $30 million).

The drop is affected by other factors besides tougher law enforcement. In the wake of aggressive arrests, crooks have become more wary and are risking fewer robberies, says Kennedy. The industry now spends “millions of dollars a year” on armed escorts for trunk and remount shows, and salespeople are “more careful than they used to be, using more stringent procedures in moving and storing goods,” he notes.

Generally, jewelry companies seem more confident than they were a year ago, when many predicted that the threat of armed robbery would discourage salespeople from traveling and that trunk and remount shows might disappear. Says Kennedy: “They know this situation [of possible robberies] isn’t going to go away completely, but they’ve learned through experience and a lot of pain how to deal with it, and they feel they’ve weathered the worst of the storm.”

That storm has abated, but it hasn’t disappeared. The drop in on-the-road thefts “only takes us to where we were in 1998, and that was pretty bad,” says Kennedy.

Crime Reports

While on-the-road jewelry thefts soared to historic highs in 1999, the situation was very different for on-site jewelry crimes. According to the Jewelers’ Security Alliance’s annual report on “Crime Against the Jewelry Industry in the United States,” losses from on-premises robbery, theft, and burglary dropped 23% in 1999 to a historic low of $57.6 million. That figure represents a 51% decrease from the 1997 figure of $117.5 million.

Robbery losses were down 14%, burglaries 43%, and thefts 11%. The reduction is “consistent with an overall reduction of crime in the United States,” as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, the JSA study notes.

Robberies account for most of the losses (62%), though they represent only one-quarter (24%) of the incidents. The report also notes that 40% of all jewelry robberies occur in Florida, California, New York, and Pennsylvania, and that robberies are more likely to happen between 10 a.m. and noon or 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the second half of the week.

Unfortunately, there were 15 killings connected with armed robberies in 1999. The victims included eight retail jewelers—almost twice as many as were killed during the preceding two years combined. Also killed were a policeman and two security guards. (Four criminals were slain during the course of a robbery, bringing the tally to 15.)

The JSA report, which covers both on-premises and off-premises jewelry crimes, is “an excellent tool for preparing for future crime risks by analyzing what has occurred in the past year,” says JSA vice president Robert W. Frank, who compiles and writes the annual document. “An optimist might find encouragement in the JSA statistics, and a pessimist might find discouragement, but the realist finds a foundation for future preventive action.”

The 15-page report is available from the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, 6 E. 45th St., New York, NY 10017; (800) 537-0067.

Money and Bags

Other vital security issues need the attention of the jewelry industry coalition. One is its own funding. By May, out of $250,000 needed, it had raised $180,000 from the industry. “We’ll go back to that after the [FBI] funding is assured,” says Jewelers’ Security Alliance president John Kennedy. “Until then, our efforts are focused on getting Congress to support that.”

Another issue is finding or developing safer products for salesmen to use on the road, a project headed by coalition cochairman David Downey, chairman of Downey Designs Inc. One tool is a special carrying bag with tougher case materials, locking devices that make it difficult for crooks to open, and a tracking device that extends the time in which it can be tracked.

At a conference to be held in October, JSA, security coalition members, and law-enforcement personnel will review security products for traveling salespeople and issue a report that details the products’ pros and cons.