With the holiday shopping season underway, Chicago police are warning shoppers about a professional theft ring, which it says has targeted stores along Michigan Avenue and in the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood.
At least ten incidents were reported in just a few days, police said. Second Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins described the rash of thefts as "off the charts" compared to the past.
"The theft ring will enter the store, and before the store even realizes what's happening, a leader will approach a member and say, 'if you interfere, we will pepper spray you, punch you or we might shoot you,'" he said.
Shoppers enjoying the first night of the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza appeared to be well-aware of the surge in thefts.
In Dec. 2016, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx announced retail theft charges should remain a misdemeanor unless the value of the stolen goods exceeds $1,000 or the alleged shoplifter has 10 prior felony convictions, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Alderman Hopkins said he believes the recent thefts deserve more than a misdemeanor.
"The police can make arrests, but if the courts don't prosecute and judges don’t sentence, here is no incentive for them to stop doing it, and we’re seeing that happening right now," he said.
In a statement, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office said, "We continue to prosecute these cases as misdemeanors, felony retail theft, felony armed robbery or other charges based on the facts and evidence of each case."
"By prioritizing our office’s limited resources, prosecutors are able to focus on the drivers of violence in our communities rather than low level, non-violent offenses," the statement added.
The Chicago Police Department plans to increase patrols beginning Sunday through the start of the new year.