In the midst of the last crime wave in the 1990s, many jurisdictions adopted the “broken windows” approach to crime reduction, recognizing that turning a blind eye to crime invited more crime. Rather than ignore graffiti, vagrancy, vandalism, and theft, law enforcement sought to punish these crimes.
Not only did this response make neighborhoods safer. It sent a clear message that perpetrators of crime, even “victimless crimes,” would face punishment. The result was an overall reduction in crime, including violent crime. It is time to readopt this approach, and we can start by tackling organized retail theft.
Organized retail theft has forced several Walgreens and a Cotopaxi store in San Francisco to close, as well as multiple Wawa stores and 7-Elevens in the Philadelphia area. It has forced drug stores to shutter in Manhattan. The list of brick-and-mortar businesses across the country closing because of organized theft keeps growing — everything from the local mom-and-pop shop to large retailers.
Some stores shut down because it is impossible for them to remain profitable. Many close because they refuse to subject their employees and customers to increasingly brazen and violent crime. Organized crime rings are deploying thieves to commit smash-and-grab jobs, wiping store shelves clean. Criminals, knowing there are no consequences for their actions, take full advantage of the lawlessness. To them, crime pays. And we all pay the price for that, from rising costs to lost access to stores, which communities depend on, to millions of victims left in the wake of this crime wave.
Retail crime has become an epidemic. The good news is, we know how to stop it — if only our elected leaders are willing to act.
At the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, we have been especially focused on combating the dramatic rise in organized retail theft. In contrast to traditional shoplifting, organized retail theft involves a coordinated effort by criminal organizations to steal large quantities of goods that they quickly resell online. And it is driving record levels of theft.
A recent survey of small businesses by the U.S. Chamber found that more than half (56%) of small retailers have been victims of shoplifting in the last year. Fifty percent say the issue has gotten worse over the past year. According to the National Retail Federation, theft for larger retailers now totals approximately $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales.
Criminal organizations take advantage of several legal loopholes.
First, since 2000, at least 40 states have raised the monetary threshold for the value of stolen goods necessary to trigger a felony charge. Most states do not allow misdemeanors to be aggregated, meaning that if the threshold for prosecution is $750, a person can rob multiple stores and avoid prosecution if each theft is below $750. This explains why thieves have been known literally to show up with calculators, adding up the value of stolen goods they carry out the door.
Second, many local prosecutors have gone even further, adopting nonprosecution policies for what they erroneously refer to as “victimless crimes.” This is akin to rolling out the welcome mat for criminals. These are far from victimless crimes: Businesses face monetary losses that they have to pass along to law-abiding customers in the form of higher prices. In our survey, 46% of small retailers report raising prices because of the losses from theft. Even when criminals are not violent, employees and customers are often traumatized by these robberies.
Third, it is too easy for criminals to sell their stolen goods anonymously to unsuspecting buyers using online platforms. Pre-internet, thieves would often try to unload stolen items via pawnshops. The law responded by requiring pawnshops to obtain seller identification and keep records on people attempting to pawn or sell goods. But no such “know your seller” law applies to internet-based platforms.
We can close all three of these gaps in the law. States can update their laws to aggregate thefts to ensure thieves and the leaders of criminal theft rings can be prosecuted. Local officials can adopt a zero-tolerance policy and commit to prosecuting offenses. And Congress can pass the INFORM Act to require internet platforms to collect basic identifying information about high-volume online sellers, closing off the most popular avenue of selling stolen goods.
Suzanne Clark is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.