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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Law enforcement fighting organized retail theft

The Columbian
Published: June 8, 2024, 6:03am

As of last year, the Washington Retail Association estimated that $3 billion worth of merchandise was stolen each year in the state. And we are paying for it.

As retailers add security measures — personnel and cameras — and law enforcement increasingly spends resources to deal with retail theft, the sense of safety in our communities is eroded. As organized theft rings increase in their number and brazenness, they often expand into other crimes. And as retail outlets close, with blame pointed at an epidemic of shoplifting, consumers are left with fewer choices.

Some argue that retail theft also leads to increased prices at the grocery store or the beauty store or the big-box store. This is debatable; basic economics suggests that retailers will set prices to maximize revenue regardless of overhead costs. But it is safe to say that retail theft does not result in lower prices.

All of that comes to mind with news that the Clark County Sheriff’s Office arrested 12 people last weekend as part of a retail theft sting in Hazel Dell. According to the office, 10 people were arrested on suspicion of theft, one on suspicion of trespassing and one for a felony warrant in connection with retail theft allegations.

Additional operations in other parts of the county are planned — a reaction to the sharp increase in shoplifting. As sheriff’s office officials stated: “Often, retail theft suspects are not stealing items for personal use but are part of organized theft rings that steal items to be sold for cash or returned to stores for a fraudulent ‘refund.’ Many of these subjects are also involved in other crimes, such as vehicle theft, illegal possession of firearms, drug distribution, identity theft and more.”

The Vancouver Police Department has conducted similar stings in recent years, staking out stores and waiting to confront suspected thieves. In one case reported by The Columbian in 2022, a woman walked out of a Fred Meyer store with a full shopping cart despite not paying. Police recovered $471 worth of items.

In generations past, shoplifting was thought to be the province of minor thugs and delinquents. Now it is big business, with organized theft rings systematically targeting retailers and fencing items for big profits. Online selling has made it easier to find buyers for stolen items, and retailers and law enforcement agencies reported a large spike in thefts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2022, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the formation of an Organized Retail Crime Theft Task Force. The goal is to increase coordination between law enforcement agencies by targeting theft organizations that can extend across multiple jurisdictions. At least nine other states have established similar organizations.

Funding for Washington’s 10-person unit became available in July 2023, and its first prosecution was announced in November. “Our new unit is hitting the ground running and pursuing cases as we hire our team,” Ferguson said. “This is the first of what we hope will be many cases bringing accountability to this significant and growing problem.”

Effective prosecution is essential to protecting retailers and consumers. So are laws that distinguish between petty thieves and coordinated criminal organizations. So is adequate funding for what can be complex investigations. Washington law (RCW 9A.56.350) defines “organized retail theft” but could use an update to reflect modern realities.

In the meantime, local law enforcement is doing its best to confront a costly issue.