Is there really a shoplifting ‘epidemic?’

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Legislators in California, Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina have answered the pleas of big retailers who want stiffer penalties for shoplifters, particularly those who work in groups to steal lots of stuff, sometimes from several stores over a day or two.

Louisiana moved one form of shoplifting into a category of crimes that carries a long prison sentence. The new law says shoplifting by a group is, “The taking of anything of value when a person is part of a group of three or more individuals and the person has the intent to take anything of value from a retail establishment that is in the immediate control of a retail employee or employer and there is a reasonable belief that a reasonable person would not intercede because of fear.”

Two big groups that represent retailers have wildly different estimates of the size of the shoplifting “epidemic.” The National Retail Federation says organized retail crime, or ORC, is up.

External theft, which includes ORC, is a primary driver of retail “shrink,” which reached $94.5 billion in 2021 — up from $90.8 billion from 2020 — according to NRF’s latest National Retail Security Survey. The report found that retailers saw an average 26.5% increase in ORC incidents in over the previous year. Retailers also reported an increase in violence and aggression associated with ORC.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association estimated the problem to be around $69 billion a year. A third less. To be sure, both are big numbers. But keep in mind that inflation also accounts for the increased value of the items that thieves steal. The value alone does not prove that more thieves are stealing more stuff.

The Retail Federation says a big reason for the rise in theft is that such crimes are not vigorously prosecuted.

Most reported that in-store, ecommerce and omnichannel fraud are all on the rise. Other factors contributing to the increase in ORC activity include less prosecution of crimes wrongly perceived as “victimless,” increased felony thresholds that let thieves steal more while facing only a misdemeanor charge if caught, and the growth of online marketplaces.

Is there proof that shoplifting is rising at an epidemic rate beyond the testimony of big retailers? There are certainly blatant examples of squads of thieves hitting stores, often with lots of witnesses and cameras watching them clear the shelves. But The Marshall Project searched for data to try to establish a trend and, as often is the case, the police data is missing, even though lots of legislation is based on the assumption that the anecdotal stories tell a bigger picture.

Retail lobbyists say this kind of theft is a problem for stores large and small in every state. But it’s unclear how much worse retail theft has become. National statistics are unreliable.

Nearly 40% of law enforcement agencies did not report their most recent crime data to the FBI, The Marshall Project reported in June. Even if they had, most police departments do not have a separate category to distinguish retail theft from other kinds of robberies and larceny.

And yet, lawmakers in at least 11 states are considering legislation that would more harshly punish people caught stealing from stores with the intent to resell merchandise.

The panic over retail theft offers a real-time look at the making of American crime policy. In the absence of reliable data, and in response to perceptions of lawlessness, legislators have doubled down on punitive policies. Many have even created a new category of retail crime in response to the industry’s concerns. In some states, elected officials have capitalized on the shoplifting uproar in an attempt to roll back recently enacted criminal justice reforms.

Critics of the legislative response say that decades of research on crime deterrence makes clear that a harsher approach won’t have the desired effect and will exacerbate the system’s racial disparities.

“It’s like the ’90s all over again, except we have 30 years of evidence that all of that punitiveness doesn’t get us anything,” said Laura Bennett, director of the Center for Just Journalism, a non-profit dedicated to improving journalistic coverage of critical public safety issues. “But people are still knee-jerk responding with the same tired ideas that we know don’t work.”

As states hike up their retail theft penalties, the National Retail Federation is pushing Congress to pass legislation that would:

  • Allow for federal judges to order criminal forfeiture after convictions of organized retail theft related crimes
  • Strengthen federal money laundering statutes allowing investigators and prosecutors to target the illegal proceeds of organized retail crime groups
  • Ensure that members of organized retail crime groups who use the internet or other forms of interstate or foreign commerce in furtherance of their illicit activities are investigated and prosecuted
  • Allow for federal prosecutors to utilize an aggregate total value of $5,000 or more over a 12-month period as a predicate for charging the transportation, or sale or receipt of stolen goods

The bill went nowhere in the last Congress and will have to be reintroduced for another chance.

The Marshall Project’s investigation found:

The rhetoric linking shoplifting with reform measures is out of sync with the research. An analysis of arrest data in New York shows few people committed new crimes while out on bail. And crime-deterrence research demonstrates that harsher penalties do little to prevent crime. Instead, people are much more likely to respond if they feel there’s a high likelihood of getting caught and swiftly punished.

Since 2000, at least 39 states have increased the value of stolen goods required to trigger a felony charge. States that increased their thresholds experienced the same overall decline in property crimes over the last two decades as states that did not, the analysts found.

The main focus, retail lobbyists say, needs to be on punishing the masterminds behind the crime rings who exploit the shoplifters. To do this, the federation encourages lawmakers to enact statutes that create a new category of crime: organized retail theft. The industry defines organized theft as anyone shoplifting for personal gain versus personal use. To date, the federation says it has helped enact such laws in 34 states.

An expert at Southern Methodist University’s business school said, “We estimate a typical (Texas police) agency will make about twice as many ORT arrests of Blacks than whites, and about 20% more of Hispanics than whites. … The results are consistent with a racial disparity in ORT arrests, but they do not address whether an agency is involved in active discrimination against arrestees of color, or in the mathematical equivalent of giving whites an unfair break.”

Earlier this week a private jet took off without clearance from Boston’s Logan airport and a commercial flight had to power up and circle the airport to land. And last week, two commercial jets got closer than they should have at Hollywood Burbank Airport as one was on final approach and the other was taking off.

In early February, two jets got precariously close (within 100 feet) in poor visibility weather at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. In January, a commercial jet aborted takeoff at New York’s JFK International Airport after a jet mistakenly crossed the runway as another plane approached

As alarming as this list may sound, the data is not terribly out of line with historic norms. Axios pulled Federal Aviation Administration data to put the recent runway near-misses into context. Keep in mind as you look at the data below, we are only in March and the other lines are entire years.

(FAA via Axios)

Severe incidents remain rare. FAA records indicate that most severe incursions involve a “pilot deviation,” which is when a pilot does not follow air traffic control instructions and crosses a runway without being cleared. Communication is the most common cause of confusion, investigators say.

The FAA classifies runway incursions this way:


I created a file for you to search the FAA Accident and Incident Data System for runway incidents between Jan. 1, 2000, to yesterday. You can download it as a CSV and then sort out the airport(s) you care about. A lot of these are mechanical issues, some were minor collisions and some were rough landings.

In recent years, the FAA has praised the addition of runway status lights. According to FAA, this type of “system derives traffic information from surface and approach surveillance systems and illuminates red in-pavement airport lights to signal a potentially unsafe situation. Runway entrance lights are deployed at taxiway/runway crossings and illuminate if it is unsafe to enter or cross a runway. Takeoff hold lights illuminate red when there is an aircraft in position for departure and the runway is occupied by another aircraft or vehicle and is unsafe for takeoff.”

It is worth a look at your local airport to see if they have runway status lights, commonly abbreviated as RWSLs. A dozen big airports in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Orlando and Houston, for example, have been using the system for five years. Ask your local airport authorities if they have plans to install the system.

RWSL lights in operation-2021 (FAA)

Here’s a video showing runway status lights in action. See photos.

The unidentified balloon stories seem to have fallen off the news assignment boards this week. The churning news cycle does not diminish the fact that there is a lot of stuff flying above us that we cannot identify. Politico calculates:

Unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) events continue to occur in restricted or sensitive airspace, highlighting possible concerns for safety of flight or adversary collection activity,” the Director of National Intelligence reported last month, citing 247 new reports over the last 17 months.

Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion.

The Navy has also officially acknowledged 11 near misses with UAP that required evasive action and triggered mandatory safety reports between 2004 and 2021. Advanced UAP also pose a growing safety hazard to commercial airliners. Last May, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an alert after a passenger aircraft flying over West Virginia experienced a rare failure of two major systems while passing underneath what appeared to be a UAP.

One thing we do know is these craft aren’t part of some classified U.S. project. “We were quite confident that was not the explanation,” Scott Bray, the deputy director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, testified before Congress last year.

By the way, CIA Director William Burns said this week that it is still unclear what the “Chinese spy balloon” was doing as it floated over the U.S. a couple of weeks ago. “A lot of materials from the platform that that balloon was carrying, it was clearly an intelligence platform. … I think we’ll be able to develop a pretty clear picture of exactly what its capabilities were.”

That brings us to a great story about a cop in the southern Netherlands town of Boxtel, who, while on patrol, noticed what he thought was a balloon hanging suspiciously above his town. I will let the NL Times take the story from there:

“During my surveillance rounds, my eyes fell on a suspected ‘spy balloon’ above my neighborhood,” the community police officer wrote.

“I decided to keep following the balloon, and it soon became clear that the balloon was hanging over the Selissen district,” he added. He decided to pull over his car on Van Beekstraat to investigate.

Once he cleaned the bird droppings off his windshield, the suspected spy balloon was no longer visible, he kidded. “Boxtel is safe!”

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