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California police department casts alleged crooks as social media video stars

The #dontstealinseal campaign show the apprehension and jailing of suspected thieves in “Cops” meets MTV-style productions

Seal Beach PD campaign.png

Photo/Seal Beach PD

By Greg Mellen

Opening scene: Two women, faces blurred.

Woman 1: “What did I do wrong? I was just walking along.”

Jump cut:

Maury Povich: “The Lie Detector determined?”

TV Announcer: “THAT WAS A LIE.”

Video: Women loading carts with merchandise at a big box store while “Been Caught Stealing” by Jane’s Addiction plays in the background.

Police: “You know what city you’re in?”

Woman 2: “We’re in Seal Beach, the County of Orange.”

Woman 1: “Orange County. Yeah. What does that mean? That’s different from L.A. County?”

Police: “Oh, yeah.”

Woman 1: “What does that mean? What’s the difference?”

Police: “We still take people to jail.”

Jump cut:


Video: People going to jail to Jane’s Addiction music.

Close credit: “Don’t Steal In Seal.”

In Seal Beach, California, near the movie capital of the world, retail thieves are finding themselves the unwitting stars in Instagram video posts created by the police department of the seaside town.

The unique video campaign has caught the attention of thieves.

“They’ll say ‘Don’t put me on social media,’” said Lt. Julia Clasby, who oversees the department’s public information office.

In Southern California, where the perception is that cops are soft on retail crime, in Orange and Kern Counties, officials are trying to flip the script.

The message: Not ready for your closeup? Don’t want a spot in Orange County lockup? Don’t come to Seal Beach.

The small city of 25,000 on the border of Long Beach in Los Angeles County, is not alone in pushing the message.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and his office have launched a marketing campaign on billboards, buses, bumper stickers and text messages that read: “Crime doesn’t pay in Orange County. If you steal, we prosecute.” Spitzer is also featured on a video reinforcing the message.

In Kern County, north of Los Angeles, the Bakersfield Police Department is letting criminals know it has launched an Organized Retail Theft Investigation Division, partnering with small and big box businesses, to squelch retail crime running rampant in the community.

Smile, you’ll be a star

Seal Beach began taking a new approach to sharing its dealings with crooks several years ago when a sergeant, who chooses to remain anonymous, took the reins of the department’s social media.

According to Clasby, the officer, who is also a watch commander and traffic sergeant, was given the green light by the then-chief to run free with the detail.

The most notable addition to the traditional fare of community event announcements has been a series of often cheeky videos. These typically show the apprehension and jailing of suspected thieves in “Cops” meets MTV-style productions.

The in-your-face approach has caught the attention of the local community. Followers on the department’s Instagram account jumped from several hundred to 25,000 and their Facebook followers popped to 13,000. The approach has caught the eye of nearby departments, according to Clasby.

“They tell us, ‘We love your social media. We would never do that,’” she said.

“It works for them and their community. We could never get away with it,” said a public information officer from a larger Orange County city.

Over the past six months, as part of the #dontstealinseal campaign, the Seal Beach Police have produced creative videos that mingle actual interactions with suspects on body-worn and retail stores’ cameras, mixed with music or clips from popular media, and often punctuated with a comment such as “Just another day providing free rides to Orange County Jail for those who haven’t gotten the memo.”

Behind the levity the police are serious.

The goal has been to give crooks a clear “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” type of message.

Clasby said when thieves are apprehended, many don’t realize they’ve crossed over the “Orange curtain.”

“They keep asking, ‘Why not ticket me?’ We want them to know we’re different from L.A.,” Clasby said.

No joking matter

Clasby said while other police departments have posted videos of cops dancing on TikTok, Seal Beach is taking a different tack.

“Our sergeant had the idea, ‘If I’m a victim of a crime, I don’t want to see police dancing,’” she said. “You’ll never see a Seal Beach cop dancing. What you’ll see is transparency and police doing their job.”

There have been unexpected benefits of the social media work, according to Clasby.

“That has been our best recruitment tool,” she said. “People outside our reach have come in for a ride-along to see if it’s really like that.”

Community response has been largely positive and, in some cases, touching. One respondent wrote in the comment section of a video, “If not for you arresting me, I wouldn’t be almost a year clean and sober and working in a treatment center. It took time for me to be grateful, but thank you.”

Sometimes the videotaped busts lead to a more serious find, such as a ghost gun assault rifle that officers found.

The #dontstealinseal videos started coming out in June and have been added at a rate of about one a month. In conjunction, Clasby said, the department has had a directed enforcement campaign against retail theft.

Dr. Emmanuel Barthe, an assistant professor in criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has written about crime prevention campaigns, called the Seal Beach campaign “a good idea.” He suggested adding emphasis to the penalties of jail time and booking for those arrested.

“It’s not just the apprehension, but the consequences, that carries weight,” he said. “The key is to have a consistent campaign.”

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Wider efforts

Across Orange County, the District Attorney’s Office has launched a four-week multi-county advertising campaign.

In a video, Spitzer said, “Sacramento may be rolling out the red carpet for thieves, but here in Orange County, we are throwing the book at criminals who come here to steal.”

Spitzer also formed a countywide Heist team, which in nine months has arrested 141 suspected thieves and burglars.

In Kern County, the Organized Retail Theft Investigations Division, with the help of a $6 million state grant in October, has made more than 200 arrests, recovered thousands of dollars in stolen property, and let the retail criminals in the city know the police department wasn’t going to let theft slide.

Would-be thieves are taking notice.

According to Sgt. Keegan Gavin, who oversees the division, retail theft has dropped by 50% in some shopping centers.

“We have created a multifaceted approach to ensure public safety in our retail (stores) and are working together to come up with solutions to stop these criminals in their tracks,” Gavin said.

Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer is putting her weight behind the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act, which is sponsored by Californians for Safer Communities and could make the November 2024 ballot. The act would reverse some of the effects of Proposition 47, which passed in 2014 and reduced theft and drug-related offenses to misdemeanors.

“The law is so weak in California that we are not able to protect people, and this affects everyone,” Zimmer said. “We think this new prop can really help in getting California back in place. We want to make crime illegal again and make California a place where people feel comforta

ble and safe and where businesses can prosper.”

Getting tougher on minor crime has become a big deal in Southern California and is a major topic in the election for L.A. District Attorney.

In September, California announced it will spend $267 million on increased patrols, surveillance equipment, and other activities to crack down on smash-and-grab crimes.

“Enough with these brazen smash-and-grabs — we’re ensuring law enforcement agencies have the resources they need to take down these criminals,” Gov. Gavin Newsom stated.

There are those who are happy to see O.C. and Seal Beach being more aggressive with retail theft. Gerald Storch, a former vice president with Target who advises retail operators nationally, is among them.

“It definitely helps when police take retail theft seriously,” Storch wrote after seeing the Seal Beach video. “Part of the problem is that many view this as a victimless crime, as if stores are owned by big greedy corporations who should just swallow the losses from the criminal activity.”

Retail theft, whether shoplifting or the more violent “smash-and-grab” variety, has been portrayed as a serious and growing problem. Smash-and-grab robberies have made for popular television news viewing — particularly when they happen in public — and have ignited debate, regardless of their frequency.

The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute reported that smash-and-grabs, which are felonies if they involve violence, threats, or are part of a conspiracy, are rare compared to shoplifting and commercial burglaries. The incidence of statewide commercial robberies was 53 per 100,000 residents in 2022, or about 25 percent of shoplifting and commercial burglaries.

That said, the commercial robbery rate has increased by 13.% since 2019, with an uptick of 9.1% in 2022.

In Seal Beach, through its innovative video campaign, crooks know they’re being watched.

“He definitely started a movement,” Clasby said of the sergeant who makes most of the videos on his own time. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

About the author

Greg Mellen is a former Long Beach Press Telegram and Orange County Register reporter and currently writes for Behind the Badge.