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Feb. 7, 2023

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Vancouver police put special emphasis on retail theft

By , Columbian staff reporter
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6 Photos
Vancouver police Officer Andrea Mendoza escorts a suspected shoplifter into a patrol car Wednesday at the Fred Meyer store in Cascade Park. The woman was booked into the Clark County Jail on suspicion of third-degree theft and later released. The agency says this is a growing problem and has begun patrol shifts emphasizing retail theft.
Vancouver police Officer Andrea Mendoza escorts a suspected shoplifter into a patrol car Wednesday at the Fred Meyer store in Cascade Park. The woman was booked into the Clark County Jail on suspicion of third-degree theft and later released. The agency says this is a growing problem and has begun patrol shifts emphasizing retail theft. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Vancouver police Detective Jason Nicholson sat in an unmarked car in a parking lot across the street from the Cascade Park Fred Meyer on Wednesday afternoon and waited for a radio signal from his sergeant.

The signal came a few hours into the department’s retail theft patrol emphasis; loss prevention employees inside the store had spotted someone they suspected didn’t intend to pay for the items she’d shoved under her clothes.

When she walked past the registers without paying, and the employees told her to stop, she took off running, the employees told police.

But those employees were already on the phone with Sgt. Frank Gomez, and Nicholson and four other Vancouver police officers were closing in on the parking lot. After the officers shouted for the woman to stop, she did. And she surrendered nail polish, makeup, pens and a case of art supplies worth $58.

Wednesday marked Vancouver police’s third retail theft emphasis over the past few months. A Columbian reporter and photographer rode along with officers for the majority of the shift.

Teams of officers also waited near the Vancouver Plaza Target and the Macy’s at Vancouver Mall Wednesday. Over the span of five hours that afternoon, officers made five arrests for shoplifting, according to a police news release.

Both the Vancouver Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office have seen a dramatic increase in shoplifting reports, The Columbian previously reported. Vancouver police leadership has said they plan to continue these tactics in hopes that word will get out that they’re cracking down on shoplifting and people could never know if officers are waiting just out of sight.

To Nicholson, the operation is one answer to the community’s outcry over seemingly rampant property crimes. He, too, has watched shoplifters walk right out of stores while he’s off-duty and shopping with his wife, he said.

Business owners have also sounded the alarm about the financial toll shoplifting has taken on them. The Cascade Park Fred Meyer is one of the top locations for shoplifting cases, Cpl. Jeremy Free said during a briefing before the shift.

More than a dozen officers volunteered for Wednesday’s patrol emphasis. The shifts require a lot of planning to assemble enough people to have marked, unmarked and undercover cars, along with officers in plain clothes and in uniforms. Police leadership also coordinates with the stores and said that without the help of the loss prevention staff there, they wouldn’t be successful with these operations.

Coordinated effort

Blake Kelly, a loss prevention employee at Fred Meyer, came to the Cascade Park store from Scappoose, Ore., to help Wednesday when he heard they’d be doing this operation with Vancouver police. He said it makes his job feel more meaningful when there’s consequences for those he sees stealing.

“This is a huge problem,” Kelly said. “I wish more stores would do this.”

He called in the second suspected shoplifter of Wednesday’s operation at Fred Meyer and described what she was wearing. He also kept the officers updated on where she was in the store and when she walked out the front doors with a full shopping cart of items he said she didn’t pay for.

She also had a new pair of Sketchers boots on her feet with the stickers still on the bottom, he said.

The woman froze and put her hands up when officers surrounded her in their cars. When they searched through her wallet, they found she had $10 inside. Nicholson said that showed she had no intent to pay for a full shopping cart.

As they unpacked the cart, officers found a new comforter set, kids toys, fresh fruit, makeup wipes and other miscellaneous items. An employee found the box for the boots on her feet inside the store, where she’d stashed her old shoes.

When the employees rang up the items, they totaled $471.

Kelly considered that a pretty routine haul compared with what he’s seen. He said most of the time, shoplifters take off running before officers can get there.

Nicholson also knows not every instance of shoplifting is reported. Beside the fact shoplifters are often gone by the time officers arrive and employees often have very little identifying information, stores also struggle with staffing, he said. They often can’t afford the time it takes for employees to step away from their jobs to file a report every time something is stolen.

The Vancouver Police Department also has dozens of open positions, and he said it can be difficult for the agency to have enough people working at the same time to do patrol emphases regularly.

Nicholson is on the Neighborhood Response Team, which handles property crime. He said he appreciates it when the agency comes together for these types of efforts and said he’d be a part of any more he could in the future.

“Property crime is something I’m passionate about and would like to see change in Vancouver,” Nicholson said. “If I can be a part of effecting change, that’s something I want to do.”

It can be hard to measure whether the patrol emphases are successful, he said, because the goal is to eventually have no need for them.

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