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The Fight Against Crime: Notes from the Front : Drive-By Purse Snatchings Jolt Galleria


The first level of the Glendale Galleria's parking structure, located in the middle of one of the country's safest cities, seems an unlikely place for a crime scene.

But in the past six weeks, a half-dozen shoppers have become victims of the latest drive-by crime: purse snatching. Police say these incidents occur between noon and 4 p.m.: A couple tooling around the parking structure in a champagne-colored compact car breezes past pedestrians, and a woman leans out of the driver's-side window, grabbing purses dangling from the targets' shoulders.

"These things are kind of cyclical," said Detective Thomas Kuh of the Glendale Police Department.

"I guess it's our turn. "

Purse-snatching is one of the prototypical street crimes: The thief sneaks up on an unsuspecting pedestrian, grabs the purse dangling from her shoulder, and then flees and blends in with the crowd. But Angelenos have never been ones to follow tradition, and purse-snatching in the San Fernando Valley area is now on wheels.

"Hey, it's Southern California," said Los Angeles Police Detective Mel Arnold.

"Everything's done in cars in Southern California."

Purse-snatching happens almost weekly, say robbery detectives, but drive-bys usually come in sprees, frequently when schools are on vacation or holidays are near. Thieves frequently target shoppers in mall parking areas, detectives say.

Police say they've seen a slight rise in such drive-by snatchings in recent months.

"These people are used to walking through parking lots, and they're kind of zoned" when they do, Arnold said. "They're used to seeing cars pass by."

In Glendale the thieves follow a common pattern. When they spot a woman with a purse loosely slung over her shoulder, they motor up and the passenger leans out.

Once a hand is on the purse strap, the driver accelerates, and the force either yanks the purse off the pedestrian's shoulder or breaks the strap altogether.

One woman was dragged for more than 1,200 feet when she wouldn't give up her purse--holding $80--without a fight, Kuh said. The driver swerved around the parking lot, crashing into a parked car, before he shook off the woman, who escaped with no major injuries, Kuh said.

Usually, the hauls from these robberies are minor, police say. Kuh estimates that the Glendale robbers have collected less than $200 in their month and a half of banditry.

The robbers range from "juveniles that are just bored and looking for an extra buck to parolees and drug addicts," Kuh said.

While drive-by snatchers usually can't estimate how much money they'll get, they are tough to identify, police say.

"Nobody ever gets a good view of them," said LAPD Detective Robert Johansen, "because all they see is an arm."

He recalled a group of teen-agers who terrorized West Valley Christmas shoppers last Christmas season. They were caught when one thief saw a purse "he had to have" and got out and confronted a woman, who later identified him. Police found the stolen purses in the teen-ager's car, Johansen said.

"Whatever they take is going to be profit," he said. "The worst part is the victim, trying to replace all those IDs, credit cards, family photos."

Johansen said he advises victims of drive-by snatches to check the immediate area for dumped belongings, because most robbers take the money and quickly ditch the purse nearby.

Police advise that women should protect themselves by walking in groups in well-lit places.

Most important, women need to walk with their purses in front of them, coiled tightly around their shoulder or arm, police say.

"Like with anyone else, (purse snatchers) will pick the soft targets," Arnold said. "What we tell people is to make yourself a harder target. Keep your purse tucked in front of you and make them go somewhere else."

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