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Chain-snatching not simply a petty crime

South LA | Sun sets over South LA, where chain-snatchings are becoming an increasingly pervasive problem.

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By Eddie Kim

An astonishing 90 percent of all robberies in the Florence-Graham area involves one act targeting one single item. The robberies are generally over in a matter of seconds without any weapons brandished or threats uttered.

It's a crime that isn't a specific concern for many areas in Los Angeles. In South Central, though, gold-chain snatchings - the ripping of jewelry straight off of victims' necks - is a pervasive problem.

By and large, these chains aren't the flashy, expensive sort that you envision slung around the neck of a hip-hop artist. Instead, they're the humble, slender chains - often with a small cross - found in any average jewelry store in South Central.

LAPD Senior Lead Officer Mike Shea knows that the popularity of gold-chain snatchings isn't a coincidence.

"Look at your victim," Shea said. "What does the population have? The population has a huge Latino majority, and gold chains are very popular with them. And these chains tend to be the most expensive thing the victim has on them."

A day's worth of these simple, on-the-run robberies can lead to impressive financial returns, particularly in light of the rise in gold's market price. Even more conveniently, vendors who buy gold are "everywhere - any supermarket has them," states Shea's partner, Senior Lead Officer Juan Cruz.

"A lot of places don't even check I.D., which is supposed to be the policy," he said. "Not that checking I.D. is particularly effective in discouraging chain snatchings - there's no real way to know if this isn't their property."

Maybe most worryingly, the majority of these chain snatchings are perpetrated by minors: primarily high-school and upper middle-school students, according to Shea.

"They'll skip school and just spend all day stealing gold chains," Shea said. "It's a relatively easy way to make a lot of money."

"It's endemic here," Cruz added. "Kids, especially young black males, whom disproportionately make up our suspect demographic, are easily caught up in petty crime. Without the right support and outside motivation, a criminal lifestyle can begin to feel like the best option."

Jeffrey "PJ" Harris, a Salvation Army school counselor who has spent all his life in South Central, says he has seen how easy it can be to fall into a cycle of crime.

"I still see some of my old friends who go in and out of jail now. This kind of thing happens, especially if you have nothing better to do or you're lazy and don't focus," he said. "I really wanted to skate and make music. That's what helped me. Not everyone has that."

Rafael Balderas, principal at Fremont high, also points out that in the cases he's seen, it's not necessarily just about a lack of ethical support or thinking that crime is appealing. Sometimes, it's just a matter of finding money, he says.

"I've been in education for 22 years, and I can tell you a lot of these inner-city kids commit crimes out of necessity, not because it's interesting or anything," he said. "How do you convince someone not to steal when they can't pay the bills?"

And part of the reason gold-chain snatchings, as well as other smaller crimes, are so popular in the neighborhood is that for the most part, the victims don't follow through with prosecution.

"We're fighting the culture. There are people who haven't bought into the justice system. A lot of Hispanics think corruption is rampant here, too, like in Mexico - they're scared to report to the police," Shea said. "It's a problem because our court system treats these victims like suspects, practically, keeping people from work, making the process a hassle...sometimes defense attorneys will just delay so that victims give up. It's not worth it to them.

"It's a community in flux," he adds. "Maybe when the immigrant population settles down and feels like this is truly their home, it will be different."

Targeting the buyers of gold has been part of LAPD's strategy to curb gold-chain robberies, and undercover sting operations have caught unscrupulous vendors who are blatantly willing to turn a blind eye to "repeat sellers who come in day after day with gold," according to Cruz.

But the problem is widespread, and there's no real network to bust. And it's difficult for law enforcement to focus their efforts on this issue because of the relatively low monetary value of the robberies. For now, convincing community members to simply not wear them in public is the most effective solution.

"Unfortunately, the only way this will stop is if there's nothing to steal," Cruz says.

View Gold Chain Schemes in a larger map
A gold-chain robbery scheme | Thieves can take an entire day riding buses and stealing chains. Here's how they do it.