National retailers have been sounding alarm bells for the last year: Organized shoplifting is on the rise, and needs to be addressed urgently by policy makers.
In Oregon, Safeway/Albertson’s complains of losing more than $15 million in Multnomah County stores over the last eight years. Police agencies talk of coordinated efforts to steal large amounts of merchandise, then sell it on the web or via flea markets. Store employees say they can feel unsafe as thieves carry out brazen thefts.
“These individuals are targeting a large amount of merchandise at one time – losses from anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000,” Phil Smith, a retail crime investigator for Fred Meyer and vice president of the Organized Retail Crime Association of Oregon, told lawmakers on Wednesday. “As a result of these actions retailers are now starting to close doors or relocating to combat these issues.”
In response, Oregon legislators are considering a package of bills that proponents say would help the state better respond to the problem of organized theft – and more easily ratchet up penalties for people who participate.
The proposals are included in amendments to Senate Bill 318 and Senate Bill 340, which received a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Both bills are being touted by members of a sprawling task force that took up the problem of organized theft over the last six months. That group included the Oregon Department of Justice, district attorneys, law enforcement agencies, and large retailers.
Under the group’s proposed version of SB 318, the state would set aside $5 million to help pay for the cost of cracking down on theft in cities and counties. The bill would also reserve additional money to pay for new positions within the Oregon Department of Justice to help cities and counties analyze and fight organized theft.
Changes proposed to Senate Bill 340, and favored by the state’s district attorneys, would alter state law to ensure prosecutors can seek stiffer penalties for people convicted of organized retail theft. Under Oregon law, the crime involves working in concert with another person or people to steal more than $5,000 worth of merchandise within a 90-day period.
Amendments pushed by DAs and their allies would allow prosecutors to charge people who would currently face misdemeanor theft charges with a felony if thieves recklessly endanger people in the course of a crime. They also would tweak the law to allow for stiffer penalties for people who repeatedly commit organized retail theft, and make it easier for prosecutors to aggregate thefts that occur over the course of months into a single case.
The bill “provides the necessary protections that retail employees need as organized retail theft groups escalate into more threatening behavior towards employees and staff,” Michael Wu, executive director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, said in written testimony.
A rise in shoplifting has been a hot topic among retailers of late, with national business groups attempting to put hard numbers behind the problem, and stories of brazen thefts where employees or onlookers have occasionally been injured or killed.
And the bill package comes as shoplifting is an increasingly large subject of conversation in Oregon – and particularly Portland.
In February, Walmart announced it was closing two locations in Portland later this month. The company told The Oregonian/OregonLive there is “no single cause” when it elects to close stores, and did not cite problems with shoplifting.
That didn’t stop Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who some political observers have speculated may be considering a presidential bid, from responding to the news with a tweet blaming the closures on lawlessness in Portland. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler responded by noting that dozens of Walmarts had closed in Texas in “recent years,” and suggesting that challenges facing Walmart and other retailers were widespread.
“The retail industry is changing and retail theft is a national issue,” Wheeler wrote.
Beyond the Portland closures, Walmart is shuttering stores in Illinois, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Florida and the District of Columbia.
One major Oregon company is citing shoplifting in its decision to shutter a store.
Nike has closed the doors to its neighborhood store in Northeast Portland because of increasing thefts. In order to reopen, Nike asked the city to make off-duty police officers available to act as security at the store – a request that the Oregonian reported is unlikely to be met amid a shortage of officers.
Concerns about theft go well beyond Nike or Walmart. The state’s largest business group, Oregon Business & Industry, suggests organized thefts have cost the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.
The crimes “are not due to houseless individuals just trying to get by or teenagers stealing candy bars,” OBI lobbyist Derek Sangston told lawmakers. “This is theft being driven by organized retail crime syndicates.” Michael Zacher, a detective with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, said thefts are “largely driven by substance abuse and the ability to sell in secondary markets.”
Portland police have shown interest in tackling shoplifting lately. The police bureau recently issued a press release touting statistics from a recent “retail theft mission” in and around east Portland’s Mall 205 – its third-such effort in four months.
Over the course of the March 5 effort, police logged 34 arrests, served 28 warrants, recovered seven stolen vehicles and wrangled more than $3,000 in stolen goods, according to the bureau’s figures.
At least one lawmaker has firsthand experience with the problem lawmakers are hoping to address.
State Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, was recently at a TJ Maxx in her district when she heard yelling and screaming as someone ran out the front door. Gelser Blouin said store employees told her that the person had fled with merchandise, and that it was store policy not to go after them. While she was having that conversation, she said, another person involved in the theft left out a locked back door, triggering the alarm.
“I recently watched this happen,” Gelser Blouin said during Wednesday’s hearing. “It was frightening as a customer and, I think, to the store employees as well.”