Police in a small San Francisco Bay Area community were about to help authorities in neighbouring Oakland keep the peace during a protest when a more pressing crisis hit: groups of thieves were pillaging malls, setting fire to a Walmart and storming a car dealership.

By the time San Leandro officers arrived at the Dodge dealership, dozens of cars were gone and thieves were peeling out of the lot in $100,000 Challenger Hellcat muscle cars.
Nearly 75 vehicles were stolen Sunday, including models driven through glass showroom doors.

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"It was very strategic," Sergeant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office said.

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The brazen heist, by well co-ordinated criminals, was one of many nationwide in the past week at big box electronics stores, jewelry shops and luxury designer outlets. Many of the smash-and-grab thefts have happened during or after protests over the death of George Floyd, who struggled to breathe as his neck was pinned down by a white Minneapolis police officer's knee.

Caravans of burglars have capitalised on chaos, communicating with each other via messaging apps during heists and using the protests and other tactics to throw police off their trail. Opportunists have sometimes joined the frenzy, but police and experts say the sophistication suggests a level of planning that goes beyond spontaneous acts.

It's hardly the first time legitimate protest has been used as a cover for crime. But crime experts note the scale of the thefts, which have taken place coast-to-coast, in big and small cities and in suburbs.

"I've been a student of these things. And I have never seen anything like it," said Neil Sullivan, a nationally recognised expert on mass-events security and retired Chicago Police Department commander.

People who stole during civil-rights protests in the 1960s, he said, tended to be individuals who saw crimes of opportunity as demonstrations spun out of control. By contrast, many of the break-ins that have happened the past week appear to be meticulously planned and co-ordinated, he said.

One of the first of these crimes unfolded Saturday in Emeryville, a tiny city of retail shopping centres next to Oakland, when a crowd showed up and broke into stores after an Instagram post said they would "hit" the Target and "break every stores" (sic).