Walmart, Target push for new shoplifting crackdown in California

The retailers and two mayors are proposing a proposed ballot measure to undo Proposition 47.

Photo by RMG News

Two of the nation’s largest retailers and a pair of Democratic mayors are supporting a campaign to roll back California’s landmark criminal justice reform, which has been blamed for a spike in retail theft.

Walmart and Target are the top funders of a proposed ballot measure that aims to undo Proposition 47, a voter-approved law from 2014 that reduced penalties for many lower-level drug and property crimes in the state.

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The latest initiative would give prosecutors more power to charge accused thieves as felons and force drug users into treatment with the threat of jail time, said Greg Totten, head of the California District Attorneys Association, which is spearheading the effort.

Also see: ‘Smash-and-grab’ robberies fuel new laws, but critics question the need

The campaign has gained the support of San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, who represent two of the most liberal cities in the US. Their backing reflects a growing frustration felt by the public and city leaders with the consequences of Proposition 47, which some say has emboldened criminals.

Critics point to a recent wave of smash-and-grab robberies at department stores and the prevalence of open-air drug use on city streets as evidence of the law’s shortcomings. In September, Target closed three California locations as well as six stores in other states, citing crime.

Proposition 47 was a “well-intentioned initiative” that has had “significant unintended consequences,” Mahan said at a press conference this week. “A small number of people brazenly commit crimes without fear of accountability. People are so trapped in addiction that they refuse services and subsist in misery on our streets.”

Other large backers of the campaign include a prison-guard union, Macy’s Inc., and businessman and political donor William Oberndorf, who was a major contributor to a 2022 recall effort that ousted San Francisco’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin.

The mayors’ stance puts them at odds with other Democratic leaders in the state, including Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Supporters of Proposition 47, who include civil rights groups, public defenders and some law enforcement officials, credit the decade-old law for slashing incarceration rates, reducing racial disparities in arrests and cutting prison costs. The measure has also funneled funds to effective crime prevention programs, they say.

Retail theft

US retailers say they have suffered an increase in inventory losses, known as shrink, due in part to organized retail crime, which targets both high-end goods and everyday items like toothpaste and baby formula.

Also see: Retail group pulls back on claim organized retail crime accounts for nearly half of inventory loss

According to a study last year by the National Retail Federation, a trade group that includes Walmart and Target, shrink rose to 1.6% of sales in 2022, up from 1.4% the previous year, but in line with the two years before that. That worked out to about $112 billion in lost merchandise, and theft — both external and internal — accounted for almost two-thirds of the total. Shrink also includes losses from damage and administrative error.

Los Angeles and San Francisco topped the list of US metro areas most affected by organized retail crime, followed by Houston and New York, the trade group said. Sacramento, California, also ranked in the top 10.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

California Highway Patrol cracking down on retail theft ahead of holiday shopping season

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) — It is a scene many feel is becoming more common: targeted and elaborate retail theft impacting retailers large and small.

Often caught on camera, several thieves burst in and walk out with thousands of dollars in goods.

“During this holiday season, merchants and consumers can expect to see an increased presence of high-visibility patrols and law enforcement,” California Highway Patrol Commissioner Sean Duryee said.

The commissioner said his agency has expanded its effort to combat retail theft across Central California.

CHP says it has already recovered about a million dollars in goods in the Fresno area and Sacramento.

But as the commissioner says patrols will continue, some worry that law enforcement’s hands are tied due to a state law.

“Proposition 47 created this huge loophole that says if you are caught with $950 or less of stolen goods, you’re going to get a misdemeanor, not a felony,” Republican State Assemblyman Jim Patterson said. “But the act they are doing is still a felony.”

Patterson described what he says are the deliberate lengths criminals go to when they target retailers.

He says the thieves “game the system” by each stealing less than $950 worth of products to avoid felony charges if caught.

Those crimes quickly add up, and Fresno Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Scott Miller says it is taking a toll on local retailers.

“If you’re a ten-person business, you don’t have a loss prevention professional working for you, and you just don’t have the ability to devote those resources to it,” Miller said.

Click here to read the full article at ABC 30

Oakland Target Closure Could Limit Pharmacy Access For Many Locals

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) — Target announced on Tuesday that is closing three Bay Area stores: one in San Francisco, Pittsburg and Oakland.

The Target near downtown Oakland at 27th Street and Broadway is set to close by mid-October.

“I’m sad. What about the seniors? I do home care and (my client) lives right here,” says Helen Walton, pointing to an apartment complex near the Target store. “I take care of all her business, her prescriptions, everything here.”

Walton says filling the prescriptions will be the hard part because there are not many other options within walking distance. A sign posted inside the store directs customers to visit the CVS pharmacy located one mile away.

Target claims that retail theft is the main reason behind the decision to close the stores.

“Target tries to operate on pretty low margins. And if theft is a big problem in a neighborhood, that could be the difference between a profit and a loss,” explains Robert Chapman Wood, Professor of Management at San Jose State University.

He says discount drugstores are facing other pressures as well.

“The pharmacy business has been going through changes, which are not very transparent to ordinary people. A lot of pharmaceutical fulfillment is being done by pharmacy benefit managers, usually controlled by the insurance company,” he says.

According to Professor Wood, that means insurance companies are filing prescriptions by mail, which could prove to be more profitable. He doesn’t know how that may be impacting the Target-CVS Pharmacy partnership, but he believes it is putting pressure on large discount drugstores.

“The drugstore part of the drugstore has traditionally been a high margin area. And to the extent that those are under pressure, the insurance companies trying to do the fulfillment themselves, that could be a big problem for the drugstore business,” says Wood.

“We live in corporate America. So ultimately, everything is driven by a profit motive, and not everything is driven by the social motive,” says Professor Balaraman Rajan. He teaches business and economics at Cal State East Bay.

Professor Rajan says Target can’t be faulted for closing stores, since it is primary responsibility is to stakeholders. He adds, but in a city like Oakland, which is facing rising crime and increasing store closures, the pressure falls on the city to do more. Such as managing the decreasing number of pharmacies.

“The city can take action so that it is more welcoming to these corporates, more welcoming to these retailers. Because, ultimately, if there are no facilities out there, you won’t have a thriving population there. It is all connected,” says Rajan.

Click here to read the full article in ABC News

California Targets Smash-and-Grabs With $267 Million Program Aimed at ‘Brazen’ Store Thefts

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California will spend $267 million to help dozens of local law enforcement agencies increase patrols, buy surveillance equipment and conduct other activities aimed at cracking down on smash-and-grab robberies happening around the state.

Officials from the California Highway Patrol and San Francisco and Los Angeles law enforcement agencies made the announcement Friday. It follows a string of brazen luxury store robberies in recent months, where dozens of individuals come into a store and begin stealing en masse.

Videos of the incidents have quickly spread online and fueled critics who argue California takes too lax an approach to crime.

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

The spending comes from a pot of money Newsom first requested in late 2021, after he signed a law to reestablish a statewide taskforce to focus on investigating organized theft rings. The money will be given through grants to 55 agencies, including local police departments, sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices.

The grants, to be distributed over the next three years, will help local law enforcement agencies create investigative units, increase foot patrol, purchase advanced surveillance technology and equipment, as well as crack down on vehicle and catalytic converter theft — an issue that has become rampant in the Bay Area. The money would also help fund units in district attorney’s offices dedicated to prosecuting these crimes.

California Highway Patrol Commissioner Sean Duryee called the money “a game changer.”

“This is a sizable investment that will be a force multiplier when it comes to combating organized retail crime in California,” he said at a news conference Friday.

Retailers in California and in cities elsewhere around the U.S., including Chicago and Minneapolis, have recently been targeted by large-scale thefts when groups of people show up in groups for mass shoplifting events or to enter stores and smash and grab from display cases.

Several dozen people participated in a brazen smash-and-grab flash mob at a Nordstrom store in the Westfield Topanga Shopping Center last month. Authorities said they used bear spray on a security guard, the Los Angeles Times reported, and the store suffered losses between $60,000 and $100,000.

Video showed a chaotic scene, with masked thieves running through the store – one dragging a display rack behind them. They smashed glass cases and grabbed expensive merchandise like luxury handbags and designer clothing as they fled.

Other high-end malls have been hit in similar fashion in recent years. Lately, a Gucci store and a Yves Saint Laurent store were major targets in the Los Angeles area, prompting authorities to announce a new task force to investigate the crimes.

“No Angeleno should feel like it’s not safe to go shopping in Los Angeles,” Mayor Karen Bass said last month while announcing the new task force. “No entrepreneur should feel like it’s not safe to open a business.”

Since 2019, law enforcement in California has arrested more than 1,250 people and recovered $30.7 million in stolen merchandise, the governor’s office said.

The new funding is essential to help law enforcement respond to large-scale, organized crimes that could turn violent, said Los Angeles Assistant Sheriff Holly Francisco.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

S.F. is Still On Edge Over Shoplifting. Can Downtown Businesses Stop Thieves Without Risking Lives?

At a Metro PCS store near City Hall in San Francisco, clerk Maria Gonzalez said shoplifters invade at least twice a week, at times jumping over the counter to swipe phones, cords and anything else they can snatch.

Sometimes they wear hoodies and masks, but other times, “they just come in like they are.” If the thieves get too close or act aggressively, she said, employees like her have no choice but to pepper-spray them. A lone security guard patrols a stretch of Market Street where her store is, funded by area merchants, she said — but it’s not enough.

“We tell them to get out, but they’re going to take what they’re going to take,” Gonzalez said. “More than anything, I feel scared for my life.”

Once again — after a Walgreens guard shot and killed an unarmed man who had allegedly shoplifted, and after a nearby Whole Foods closed, citing theft as a significant reason — San Francisco store owners, employees and guards say they are grappling with a difficult question: In a city struggling with a high rate of property crime, what is the best way to deter petty theft?

Do you confront people suspected of shoplifting or do you steer clear, knowing such interactions can escalate from a minor, often desperate crime to an encounter that can be dangerous for both parties?

Relatives of the 24-year-old man killed outside the downtown Walgreens on April 27, Banko Brown, say the tragedy has shown that merchants shouldn’t hire gun-carrying guards. The fatal shooting prompted a change in policy for the guards at the store, the San Francisco Standard reported, who were told shortly before the incident to confront shoplifters; afterward, they were ordered to stand down and leave their firearms at home.  

On an earnings call earlier this year, a Walgreens corporate executive said the company had seen a slight reduction in “shrink,” the loss of inventory attributed to employee theft, shoplifting, fraud, or other factors. During the call, Walgreens CFO James Kehoe said the company was moving from using security guards to hiring off duty law enforcement officers to guard stores because the security companies Walgreens was using had “proven to be largely ineffective.”

Many merchants, meanwhile, say they remain in a no-win situation, not wanting to resort to violence to stop shoplifters but also loathe to rack up thousands of dollars in losses while sending a message to would-be thieves that they have free reign.

“Merchants are completely fed up with having their businesses vandalized, or being robbed over and over,” said Ryen Motzek, president of the Mission Merchants Association. “But that still doesn’t justify taking a human life.”

He said many businesses defend themselves “because the police can’t. And the response might not be a well-trained response. It creates ugliness all around, this loop of dysfunction. I don’t see anybody winning.”

Many specifics about Brown’s death remain unclear. District Attorney Brooke Jenkins initially declined to prosecute the guard, Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony, saying evidence showed he acted in self-defense. But as outrage grew over the decision, Jenkins backtracked and said she might still file charges. She has refused to release video of the fatal encounter, saying it would be unethical to do so because the case is under investigation.

Meanwhile, the controversy ignited by Brown’s killing has served to intensify the debate about the role of security guards in San Francisco. 

After the shooting Supervisor Dean Preston introduced legislation seeking to amend the city’s police code to clarify that guards are not to unholster their weapons unless there is an actual and specific threat to a person. The current police code says guards may draw their handgun if there is an actual and specific threat “to person and/or property.”

The first responsibility of a private guard, industry leaders and experts said in interviews, is to minimize risk and loss. But doing that — by physically intervening with a shoplifter, if necessary — can be fraught, and is sometimes barred by policy. Guards don’t know whether a person they suspect is shoplifting might be under the influence of drugs, struggling with mental health issues or carrying a hidden weapon.

In 2021, a video of a man on a bicycle stuffing goods into a trash bag at a San Francisco Walgreens went viral, in part because viewers were shocked no one tried to stop the thief. The man was later arrested and sentenced to 16 months in jail for a series of thefts in the city. But similar videos of open shoplifting have become fairly routine. 

“It can be very dangerous,” said Tom Wong, CEO of Red Dragon Private Security, referring to attempts to stop people they suspect are stealing. In the past year, a security guard was shot dead in Japantown, allegedly by a 15-year-old boy he had escorted out of the neighborhood mall, and another was stabbed at a Walgreens on Powell Street.

Wong’s strategy is simple: “Find the least confrontational approach, the least amount of force needed to get that person out of the store.”

In a perfect world, Wong said, after a security guard spots a shoplifter, he or she would make their presence known, and order the shoplifter to put the item back and leave the store. If the shoplifter refused, then the security guard would summon other store employees, and warn the shoplifter if they didn’t leave they would be arrested for theft. 

If a security guard’s client wants a guard to do more than just be a visible deterrent to shoplifters, they might then actually detain a thief, he said.

Under state law, security guards have the power to enact a “citizens arrest,” but no more. When actually detaining a suspect, a guard is required under state rules to tell the suspect of the intention to arrest them, the cause, and the security guard or private security officer’s authority to make a citizen’s arrest, according to a training manual on the website of the state’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, which regulates California security guards.

The manual also notes security guards should never touch a suspect “except when they are protecting a citizen, protecting their employer’s property, in self-defense, or when necessary to use reasonable force in effecting an arrest.”  

Ideally, Wong and others said, a security guard tries to resolve the situation with words first — and only reaches for a baton, TASER or pepper spray if that doesn’t work. A gun should be a last resort, and only in situations where there is “an imminent threat” to the life of the security guard or others.

Security guards in California must be 18 or older, pass a federal background check. They must also complete a 32-hour training course, and if they want to carry firearms, pass a separate firearms training course that includes qualification at a firing range and a written exam. If they want to carry a baton or pepper spray, they must obtain separate permits for those weapons — and undergo additional training. That compares to police officers who must pass a rigorous police academy — 34 weeks in San Francisco, followed by a 16-week field training program.

Michael Spearman, who runs the Bay Area-based Archangel Solutions security company for CEOs, celebrities and Fortune 50 companies, said giving a gun to anyone with less than excellent training raises potential for trouble.

“You give a guy a hammer, and everything looks like a nail after a while,” he said. “When you’re dealing with angry people, desperate people stealing things or the mentally ill — actually any confrontation — if they are trained correctly in de-escalation, a guard will know what to do. If they’re not, it doesn’t work. 

“Look, police officers get hundreds of hours of training,” he said. “And you’re asking a security guard to get a week or so of training and a gun course and then expect them to do the same job? It’s not practical.”

In interviews in the past week, several security guards in downtown San Francisco said they focused on de-escalation in their jobs. They said they preferred not to be armed because, as one put it, “someone could wrestle the gun from me, and if I have to use it, I don’t want a death on my hands.”

The guards said they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, and The Chronicle granted them anonymity in accordance with its confidential-sources policy.

“The trick is to closely study people when they walk in, see the trouble before it happens, and then go up and politely engage to stop it,” said one guard at a major downtown store.

As she spoke, she nodded at a man walking by in ragged clothes with a bulging backpack under his jacket, mumbling to himself as he eyed merchandise. “Like that guy,” she said. “I will be polite and respectful, but make sure I keep an eye on him.”

Across California, clearance rates for petty larcenies — thefts without the use of force or threat of force — have fallen substantially over the past three decades, records show. In 2019, police across the state solved about 9% of such crimes. In San Francisco, police have solved roughly 3.6% of larcenies reported in 2023, a slight increase from the same time last year.

Some law enforcement officials say shop owners and security guards have been hamstrung by local and state policies that have reduced punishment for nonviolent offenders, and emboldened them as a result. The argument is rejected by progressives who say petty theft is often driven by poverty and inequality, and favor rehabilitation over incarceration.

“If they’re not going to prosecute (the shoplifters) why are you putting yourself at risk?” asked Art Acevedo, a former head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association who has led police departments in Texas, Florida and Colorado.

Some shopkeepers say shoplifting is just part of doing business in San Francisco. Mohsen Ali Mused — who keeps a machete, pepper spray and a baseball bat behind the counter of his Tenderloin Market and Deli —  said he doesn’t employ guards despite losing what he estimates to be thousands of dollars in merchandise to shoplifting every month. He said he’s got the weapons in case someone tries to rob him — not for dealing with shoplifters.

“I’m the owner, like the Godfather, and I know how to talk to them,” he said as he cheerfully greeted a mix of well-dressed and ragged customers coming in the door. “Seventy percent of those people who want to steal probably don’t have their brains working right. They’re hungry, they’re desperate.”

He said sometimes when people ask him for food, it gives it to them. “It’s the right thing to do,” he added.

Sherilyn Adams, head of the San Francisco nonprofit that in 2019 opened the nation’s first homeless shelter for trans youth like Banko Brown, said the problem of unhoused people shoplifting won’t end until there are enough drug rehab, aid and housing programs for street dwellers.

“It’s poverty. People would not have to steal food and basic needs if things were readily available to them, said Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services.  

Not every homeless person shoplifts, of course. But Adams acknowledged that some of those boosting from stores do it to get money for drugs or alcohol.

Shoplifted goods are sold everyday by housed and unhoused people alike.  

Those selling the goods have little fear of being punished. They generally say they boost and sell for survival.

“Panhandling doesn’t get me enough for my food and drugs,” said Antonio Ortega, 33, as he spread out his latest haul of spices, coloring markers and socks on Turk Street. “You think I like shoplifting? Hell no. But most of us doing it are doing bare essentials to get by.”

He said he often gets questioned by security guards, “but they can’t do anything, really.”

“It’s brutal out here,” he added, explaining that he needs to boost to buy food and drugs.  

James McGee, 41, lives outside and is a regular at the Tenderloin Market and Deli. He said he shoplifts food, mostly sweet snacks to ease the craving for heroin and meth. But one place he leaves alone is Mused’s.

“Moh is a really good guy, and if I’m really hungry he’ll give me chips, soda, things like that,” he said, grinning while holding up a bag of popcorn. “Moh gave me this. He understands. All he asks is that you be clean and don’t disrespect the store. 

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

‘It’s Extremely Alarming’: Sacramento-Area Police Prepare Against Theft as Black Friday Nears

A string of recent smash-and-grab thefts at luxury stores in the Bay Area and Southern California has Sacramento-area law enforcement preparing for Black Friday and forming strategies to thwart similar brazen crimes on one of the busiest weekends of the holiday shopping season.

Officers, some of them undercover, will flood retail areas like the Roseville Galleria from Friday through the year’s end amid the recent trend of organized retail crime. The Roseville Police Department and other agencies in the capital region are well aware of the brazen thefts that have played out over the past week.

“It’s extremely alarming,” said Roseville police spokesman Rob Baquera. “The frequency of these crimes shows an alarming trend.”

From Thanksgiving night through New Year’s Day, Roseville police will increase patrols and special operations to protect shoppers and businesses; not only at the mall but also locally-owned retail businesses throughout the city, Baquera said.

Shoppers should expect to see more marked patrol vehicles as well as officers walking through parking lots looking for thieves trying to break into vehicles. They also will be maintaining a highly visible presence around stores, like the Galleria, looking for anyone trying to launch a smash-and-grab attack.

Click here to read the full article at the Sacramento Bee