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'Smash-and-Grab' the Latest Sign of a Decline of Civility in America

As Usual, California is on the Leading Edge but This Time it’s Falling of the Cliff

I've been out of touch for awhile because of unexpected surgery. I'm on the mend and glad to be blogging again about compelling ethics issues, none of which is more important than the rising crime in big cities like San Francisco that have created a challenge to civil behavior in America. The increase in crimes, especially smash-and-grab, affect the quality of life as I explain below.

I have blogged about the decline of civility in America before. It’s been building for many years. Just think about what’s happened in our country this past year. Recently, we’ve seen skirmishes break out in stores and planes between people lacking the ability to exercise self-control of their behavior. They think about themselves and not the common good, a tenet of behavior in America for many years.

Fights on Airplanes

U.S. federal agencies are dealing with a rising number of unruly airline passengers on increasingly crowded airplanes, including thousands who have refused to wear masks.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that between January 1 to July 1, 2021, it had received 3,509 unruly passenger reports, including 2,605 refusing to wear a mask. The Transportation Administration (TSA), says inflight disturbances have risen from 2 incidents per 1 million screened in 2019 to 12 per 1 million in 2021. The reality is there has been a loss of civility in American society.

Defining Civility

The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines civility as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. Linda Fisher Thornton, a leading voice in ethical leadership, suggests that “these behaviors are the ones we use when we treat others with care,” thereby linking civility with ethical behavior through The Golden Rule: Treat others the way we would wish to be treated.

Civility is about more than just politeness. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Indeed, “civility represents a long tradition of moral virtues essential to democracy. Virtues like empathy, humility, integrity, honesty, and respect for others are ideals of democratic engagement.” Without civility a society can morph into verbal, accusatory, offensive verbal attacks on one another which is the way things are headed in the U.S.

Civility represents the quality of our behavior with others in our communities. This is important for business because how we treat others signals who we are and what we value. Moreover, since the essence of ethics lies in how we are with others, civility and ethics are intricately linked.

Civility cultivates a civic code of decency. It requires us to discipline our impulses for the sake of others. It demands we free ourselves from self-absorption. By putting ethics into practice in our day-to-day encounters, civility is that moral glue without which our society would come apart.”

Smash and Grab

A wave of "smash-and-grab" crimes is plaguing upscale stores in major US cities, with mobs of thieves making off with expensive goods in brazen, nighttime raids.

California seems to be on the “leading edge” of smash and grab incidents. Google “Shoplifting in San Francisco” and you will find more than 100,000 hits. And you will find lots of YouTube videos, where you can watch a single thief, or an entire gang, walk into an SF Walgreens or CVS and empty the shelves. Most walk in, go about their pilfering, and then walk out, though at least one thief rode their bike into the store and departed the same way, carefully navigating their two-wheeler down a narrow aisle.

We probably shouldn’t call it shoplifting anymore, since that term connotes the idea of a person trying to conceal their crime. In San Francisco, there is no attempt to conceal theft, and there is almost never any effort by store employees, including security personnel, to confront the thieves. The most they do is record the thefts with their cell phones.

Why is shoplifting so rampant? Because CA state law holds that stealing merchandise worth $950 or less is just a misdemeanor, which means that law enforcement probably won’t bother to investigate, and if they do, prosecutors will let it go.

Why won’t store employees do anything about this theft? Because they don’t want to take the risk. I doubt many would, knowing that a Rite Aid employee was murdered recently after trying to stop two thieves. Moreover, a confrontation within the store risks harming not only store staff but also customers, so employees are almost certainly instructed by their managers to do nothing. Smash-and-grab

Because of this law, California is extending an open invitation to anyone to walk in and take. Just like that—since they know that police or prosecutors won’t bother with a misdemeanor complaint and that store personnel won’t stop them.

Governor Newsom, in his lack of wisdom and foresight on the smash and grab incidents, signed a new law in which shoplifting is a felony, even if it is below the $950 limit, if—and this is a big “if”—the theft is part of an organized ring with the intent to sell the stolen goods. Sadly, this may have little effect on shoplifting, given that most of these thefts are by individuals, rather than groups, and it will still be up to police and prosecutors to charge these as felonies. What is needed is a change to the state law that makes shoplifting at a much lower dollar level a felony, to provide adequate incentives to individuals not to commit these crimes.

Unfortunately, it is not just shoplifting in San Francisco that is getting headlines, though San Francisco’s out-of-control drug problem makes this issue much worse than it otherwise would be.

Crime in California

Crime is rising almost everywhere in California, including violent crime. Homicides in California jumped 31 percent last year, making 2020 the deadliest year since 2007. The 2,202 homicides in 2020 represent an increase of 523 over 2019. Homicides in Los Angeles rose 40 percent to 332, and they rose 35 percent to 285 in San Francisco. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles feature district attorneys who are perceived to be soft on crime, and both are facing the possibility of a recall election. Gives a whole new take on defunding police, doesn’t it?

These increases put the spotlight on California’s recent legal change that provides shorter sentences for prisoners, including violent felons, largely because of budgetary issues (California prison costs are among the highest in the country at $81,000 annually per prisoner), and also on Newsom’s decision to suspend the state’s death penalty law via executive order.

California will allow 63,000 prisoners, out of a population of 115,000, the possibility of early release. This includes death row inmate Richard Allen Davis, one of 737 murderers in the system, who was a released felon when he murdered Polly Klaas in 1993. Polly’s father, Marc remarked about Governor Gavin Newsom, “The thing that really alarms me about what the governor did, is that it’s a continuation of policies to undermine the criminal justice system, and to put dangerous people back out onto the streets.”

Broken Windows

What are the root causes of these smash and grab incidents? Some will say prison sentences for low-level crimes is the cause. That is certainly the case in California. However, it goes much deeper than that. America has lost its way. It’s ignoring quality of life crimes that build fear in Americans. A good way to understand the dangers is to examine The Broken Windows Theory.

The Broken Windows theory, first studied by Philip Zimbardo and introduced by George Kelling and James Wilson, holds that visible indicators of disorder, such as vandalism, loitering, and broken windows, invite criminal activity and should be prosecuted as a result. But in California that is not happening. Perhaps it is why so many Californians are leaving the state for more civilized ones like Texas and Florida.

What Does the Future Hold?

I wish I could say 2022 will be better on these and other issues and bring happiness to Americans. However, call me a cynic but I expect things to get worse before they get better. Most people in Congress do not have the stomach to deal with these issues. Some fear upsetting one group of another with divergent views on social and political issues.

I wish all my readers a happy, healthy New Year. I still believe we can right the storm. However, before you can solve a problem, you must first recognize it exists, and all too many places these and other crimes are now woven into the fabric of life in America.

My gift to you as we move into 2022, is a free copy of my book for those who want it. The book is titled, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. Here is a bit more about the book. Please send me an email to me at: [email protected] to request your free copy and provide your mailing address.

If you live outside America, I can't provide a free copy because postage and handling is about $20. The book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, can be purchased on Amazon for $9.95 for a limited time.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on December 27, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: