Lawmakers mull new state rules proposed to stop liquor thieves



One would think losing money would be reason enough for stores to protect their liquor bottles from thieves.

But police say they have seen shoplifting reports pile up since voters privatized Washington liquor sales in 2011. In response, state government may force problem stores to shape up or risk losing their licenses.

“We cannot have juveniles and mentally ill people and chronic inebriates walking into a store and grabbing a bottle of spirits so easily as we have in some stores,” said Rep. Chris Hurst, chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over alcohol laws.

The committee took testimony Monday on a proposal giving state regulators at the Liquor Control Board new authority over stores with “unacceptable” levels of theft.

But it would be up to the board to decide how much theft is unacceptable. And the legislation would depend on police telling the board where shoplifting is happening.

Police say that’s difficult as long as stores are unwilling to say how much of their inventory is turning up missing.

Some numbers do show up in police reports. Tim Bennett, a Walla Walla police officer, told lawmakers his department almost never received reports of shoplifting from the old state stores — just five theft reports in more than seven years before the stores shut down in 2012. In the first 10 months of 2013, it received reports of 86 thefts, he said.

But stores often don’t report shoplifting because they don’t know about it at the time, said Don Pierce, a lobbyist for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. They only find out later after counting their inventory — and retailers have resisted revealing loss data to the authorities for competitive reasons.

The police group wants state government to require reporting of those numbers statewide.

Zeroing in on targeted stores

The proposal being pushed by two Enumclaw lawmakers, Republican Rep. Cathy Dahlquist and Democrat Hurst, doesn’t go that far. Instead, it zeros in on stores that law enforcement knows are targets.

The liquor board would be able to seek audits from those stores on their thefts. Then, if the owners don’t crack down voluntarily, the board could impose changes such as extra staffing, security cameras, record-keeping systems and moving liquor displays. If the stores still didn’t comply, the board could eventually suspend or revoke their licenses.

Retailers didn’t flatly oppose the measure Monday, but said many stores either aren’t seeing major theft or have addressed the issue without regulations. In fact, the requirements that could be imposed are based on some stores’ successful techniques.

What’s really needed is more law enforcement funding, retailers said.

For years, stores have tried to get police to respond to shoplifting, said Amy Brackenbury, who lobbies for the small grocers in the Washington Food Industry Association. But it hasn’t been a priority.

“If it’s truly a major public safety issue, and we think it is, then let’s treat it that way and not just by penalizing the retailer that makes the mistake of having his merchandise stolen,” Brackenbury told the committee.

Rep. Cary Condotta, an East Wenatchee Republican, said he can’t believe any owner wouldn’t protect such expensive merchandise — “liquid gold.”

“Is there really any store out there that wants theft, that just doesn’t care?” he asked.

But Pierce said after the hearing that stores may be making the decision to protect their most expensive booze, while accepting that there will be some theft of the cheaper stuff and building that into the price they charge.

Condotta said he would seek some changes in the proposal. He doesn’t want to leave it to the liquor board to set the threshold for sanctions.

Hurst has been doing some checks of his own and said most stores are doing a good job preventing theft — but not all.

“I walked into a couple stores, one o’clock in the morning, there was Jack Daniel’s and Jagermeister, seven, eight steps from the door with no one in the front of the store,” he said. “I literally could have filled my vehicle as full as I could, without anyone even knowing that I had been in the store.”

Police said that makes it easy for booze to fall into the hands of underage drinkers.

“The reward of being the hero at that party or being accepted by the group,” Bennett said, “that makes for a very large reward for some teens and young adults.”