Think Out Loud

Portland police ramp up efforts to curb retail thefts

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2024 10:30 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Feb. 23

The Portland Police recently announced it had made 13 arrests and recovered two stolen vehicles during a mission targeting thefts of large amounts of retail goods in the Hollywood and LLoyd districts. About two dozen retail theft missions have taken place since last March, mainly at locations in North Portland like the Cascade Station shopping mall, according to North Precinct Portland Police Cmdr. Rob Simon. He said the missions can involve up to 15 officers and require the participation of retail staff to inform the police of thefts of large amounts of merchandise such as Nike sneakers, North Face jackets and crates of wine. The crackdowns come amid a new Oregon law which took effect in January that toughens the penalties for organized retail crime, such as allowing a judge to impose a two-year prison sentence for a person with prior convictions for retail theft. Portland Police Sergeant and public information officer Kevin Allen joins us to talk about the police’s response to these crimes.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Portland Police recently announced 13 arrests and the recovery of two stolen vehicles after a mission targeting large scale retail theft. It was one of about two dozen such operations over the last year or so. It follows well-publicized reports from retailers all across the country, including in the Portland area, who say that organized theft has become a major issue. Sergeant Kevin Allen joins us now to talk about the way police are responding. He is a public information officer for the Portland Police Bureau. Welcome to the show.

Kevin Allen: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Can you describe this recent retail theft mission that was in the Hollywood and Lloyd Districts?

Allen: Yeah, absolutely. This is a mission that is part of our ongoing effort to address this problem of retail theft. We have found that it is difficult for patrol officers by themselves taking 911 calls to address these sort of chronic, ongoing issues. So a while back, there was a realization that we were going to need to do some kind of special mission. So this is part of that.

Miller: Let me just stop you there because I’m curious about that earlier realization. What was it about the kind of theft that we’re talking about - say, two officers in a patrol car, there’s a 911 call, theft in progress. What was hard about responding to that kind of call?

Allen: Quite frankly, it’s a property crime and because it’s a property crime, it is going to be a lower priority than a person crime. If there’s somebody that’s being threatened in some way or there’s an assault underway, those are always going to take priority. It’s no secret that our response time is slower than we would like. So we have to prioritize and we’re always going to prioritize people over property. And that’s really where it came down to.

Miller: OK. So given that then, but nevertheless as a bureau, you made the decision to prioritize this kind of crime in significant ways sometimes. So how do you make that decision?

Allen: So part of it is this realization that organized retail theft is not just about property crime. There’s a lot of other criminal activity that is associated with it, whether it is shootings, stolen vehicles. There are a lot of people who are engaged in this that have arrest warrants, sometimes multiple arrest warrants. And this is not somebody just walking in and stealing a bag of chips. They’re walking in and wrapping their arms around a bunch of very expensive products and then walking out with it. And there was a sense that folks who were engaged in this were emboldened because there were no consequences. So this was our effort to try to address that and what we found is we’re actually addressing other crimes as well. We’re clearing other arrest warrants as well. People are wanted for these person crimes, and it even really drives home how important we think this effort is.

Miller: So what can you tell us about how you put together a mission like the one that yielded 13 arrests and stolen cars and all kinds of weapons charges as well? What goes into that?

Allen: Well, first of all, we have to have coordination. We found that we need to have somebody that’s in charge running that. So we organize it in a way where we put a supervisor in charge of the coordination and then the supervisor will hire officers on overtime. People will come in on their days off or maybe they’ll come in early or stay late for their stay late for their shift to work these special missions. We just don’t have the bodies working straight time, their regular shifts. In order to be effective, you need a lot of cops in order to make this work. That’s the key.

Then another thing is we bring in extra resources such as our air support unit. So when we have these vehicles where we have a suspect inside the vehicle and they elude, we have a way to monitor them from the air so that we can follow from a distance, try to deflate their tires, try to get them to stop, so we can get them into custody.

Miller: How are retailers involved?

Allen: Retailers are actually really actively involved in this. We have done a ton of outreach to our business community and let them know what we’d like to do. And oftentimes when they know we’re doing a mission, they will bring in extra staff as well. So loss prevention agents and managers will come in maybe on a day that they’re not normally working. And then their goal is to also be adequately staffed, monitoring the store looking for people who are committing theft and then they’ll actively communicate with our mission folks. Instead of going through 911 queue that takes longer, they can call someone directly while we’re there and we can respond quickly, and we’re set up for that.

Miller: How opportunistic is this in terms of when you set up a mission? I mean, if there’s air support and if you have a number of people who are working overtime on some Thursday afternoon, say, are you just hoping that some organized group of thieves is going to go to a particular store that day? Or do you sometimes have reason to believe they’re going to hit a store or a mall at a particular time?

Allen: We don’t have to hope that they’ll hit there. There is almost a constant stream, where there are these efforts to commit these thefts. We will oftentimes focus on times of day where our data shows that the thefts are happening, but I’m not aware of any time where we’ve had a mission where we haven’t had a lot of work to do. Sometimes we’ll have multiple officers, and these can be a dozen or more officers on this mission and they can all be on separate calls, processing arrests, processing evidence and otherwise, engaged in the mission. So there’s no shortage of business for these folks.

Miller: We got a statement from an assistant store manager at a DICK’S Sporting Goods Store, Howard Hawk, that I want to read for you and for our listeners. He sent us this:

Retail theft in our store at Hayden Meadows has become a normal part of the business day. Over the past three years, our location has lost an impactful amount of merchandise, sometimes in incredibly large amounts. These events occur in many kinds of formats. Some are quick grab and go events and some are planned drawn out thefts. If I were a parent, I could imagine how frustrating it would be to take my child into a store and have them witness an event. I may not go back to that location and I may not be able to get the products I need.

“Employees can be driven away by the rates of retail theft. There have been a few instances of employees leaving or not choosing to work at the store because of these factors. Portland police missions that began around this time in 2023 have been a tremendous help to the store and the area. We’ve seen dozens of arrests in the last 12 months and it’s making an impact. We see large reductions in theft and a higher percentage of recovered merchandise.”

You got at this a little bit, but I just want to underline it because it’s an important point. The phrase that you and retailers and members of the media often use these days is organized retail theft. How is that different from shoplifting the way folks may have come to understand it?


Allen: Well, we know that the folks that are engaged in organized retail theft are typically the ones that are looking for something that they can sell, and these are oftentimes wrapped up in addiction issues. People who are supporting an addiction habit by committing organized retail theft. They’re not stealing some food typically for them to eat, they’re stealing coats, a whole rack of expensive coats that they can turn around and sell.

Miller: Then they go on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist?

Allen: Exactly.

Miller: Is that a place where you can actually also do missions to crack down? Can you go after the selling part of this as opposed to the stealing part?

Allen: Absolutely, we can. There is a calculus that we make on what resources do we have available and how can we be most effective? And doing that kind of mission would probably take more resources, more time than the way that we’re doing it now. Again, that’s one of the reasons we’re working with some of these larger retailers is because not only of the size of the impact, but they do have the staff available to be involved and help us get these folks into custody.

Miller: The National Retailers Association once said last year that half of all theft at stores is organized as a kind that we’ve been talking about as opposed to opportunistic shoplifting or one-off things. Then they had to backtrack after that. It seems that they’d overstated that percentage. That and other things have led some retail analysts to say that retailers might be, to some extent, blaming their various problems on organized crime as opposed to changing consumer habits or over saturation in certain areas or not being able to compete with online retailers. What does the crime data in Portland show? What can you tell us about the actual numbers?

Allen: Well, the crime data is very difficult to really nail down because anecdotally, and the numbers show, that there was a lack of reporting when there was a belief by retailers that nothing was going to happen, and no difference would happen. And we’ve actually seen a pretty dramatic increase, not only in the numbers of arrests for shoplifting charges by hundreds of percentage points over the last year or so. But we’ve also seen a pretty dramatic increase in reporting, and we think what’s happening is and these retailers are telling us now that something is happening, we’re more inclined to make these reports and put the resources forward that it takes to make these reports to the police.

Miller: That’s interesting. I mean, so what that leads me to believe is that the violent crime rates may be a little bit closer to actual rates of violent crime than property crime rates. Is that a fair way to put it because people are more likely to actually report a violent crime than something like six coats being stolen?

Allen: Absolutely. Yeah. We think that there were a lot of times where they just weren’t making the effort before and now that they’re seeing that we are making an effort to do our part as the police, they’re more likely to make a report. We find that with a lot of crimes, graffiti is one of them, car prowl reports. As people see that we are making a greater effort, they’re more inclined to report to us.

Miller: Have you seen these thieves change their behavior over the last year as you’ve changed your behavior? As you’ve made more of an effort to crack down has the organization of these thefts changed?

Allen: Absolutely. A lot of times, we’re arresting the same suspects over and over again.

Miller: Because they’re not actually being charged or not facing consequences?

Allen: No, even for a significant shoplifting charge, people aren’t just going to go to jail and stay there typically. Sometimes they will if they’re on probation or whatnot. But for the most part, it’s still gonna be they’re going to be booked and then as their process goes through the criminal justice system, they’ll be released. And so we’re finding that folks are continuing to engage in this activity and we’ve had people that we’ve arrested 16 [or] 17 times because that’s what they do. That’s the job that they do and they’re not afraid to be arrested.

Miller: Lawmakers in Oregon did do something to try to address this not long ago. And a law went into effect in January to increase penalties for retail thefts. Has that had an impact on the situation that you’re seeing?

Allen: I think it’s too early to say, but I do know that we are aware and the District Attorney’s office is aware of those additional tools that we have in place. And so our hope is that it will be effective in making a dent in this. But again, it is so hard to compare numbers, because we’re not comparing apples to apples. We’re getting more reports. So it looks like the numbers are increasing, but whether or not the problem is getting better or worse, sometimes it is hard to pin that down.

We do feel like we’re making a positive difference and we’re hearing anecdotally from retailers that they appreciate the efforts that we’re doing. And our plan is to continue doing them.

Miller: Are all retailers on board with this?

Allen: We have some that we work with more. We find there is a significant problem around the Jantzen Beach shopping center, Cascade Station shopping center, Hayden Meadow Square, Delta Park area. So those are the areas that we typically focus on. This is usually in the North Precinct that we’re doing these missions; however, we know the problem is city-wide and there is an effort to try to spread this effort to other areas of the city.

The biggest key is can the retailers get the staffing in place to help us not only capture people on the front end, but then prosecute them and maybe go to court at a later time to testify? And not all have the staffing or the funds to do that. The ones that do are the ones that we’re focusing on. We have limited resources, we know that. And so we’re always spending time just trying to figure out what’s the best use of the resources we have. How can we be most effective with the resources in place?

Miller: Kevin Allen, thanks very much.

Allen: Thank you.

Miller: Sergeant Kevin Allen is a public information officer with the Portland Police Bureau.

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