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Retailers, grocers fear increased thefts with new police law

Retailers, grocers fear increased thefts with new police law

With business advocates emphasizing the link between public safety and the local economy, retailers and grocers are warning that a new statewide police reform law enacted during this year’s legislative session will have the unintended consequence of increased thefts and shoplifting.

One of the provisions in HB 1310 is that police officers are prohibited from arresting suspects unless they have “probable cause” that a crime has been committed. Washington Retail Association Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Mark Johnson told Lens that the law will encourage more criminal activity because “criminals realize that they can steal, and if they’re not physically witnessed by a police officer in the act, it’s just the word of an employee or customer against theirs. They’re going to continue to get more and more brazen and steal more.”

Even though the new law took effect only a few weeks ago, Johnson said that association members have already suffered increasing thefts, particularly in King County, that have also become more severe. “Not only is the number of times there’s theft occurring increasing, but the violent nature of it is increasing as well. People are becoming more brazen and violent.”

In addition to the businesses and workers having to deal with greater risk of violent crime, he added that customers suffer as well. “The more product that goes out the door, it leads to an increase in prices. The company has to make up for the loss somewhere.”

For neighborhoods, the cost of local or state public safety policies can manifest in empty storefronts as businesses close. Two years ago Bartell’s announced it was closing its downtown store due to regulations and crime. In 2014 California approved Proposition 47, which classified nonviolent thefts of items worth under $950 as misdemeanors. Since then, Walgreens has closed 17 stores due to organized theft in San Francisco, where prosecution for theft have plummeted since District Attorney Chesa Boudin took office in 2020.

In Bellevue, the City Council voted in December to increase police funding following the May 2020 riots in downtown that included organized retail thefts, while a follow-up downtown protest in October remained peaceful.

Grocers are particularly vulnerable to increased thefts due to their low profit margins –typically around one percent. Washington Food Industry Association (WFIA) CEO and President Tammie Hetrick told Lens that for many members, paying for loss prevention can cost as much as a store makes in profits.

“Our store owners are losing as much as they make,” she said. “That’s how sad it is for them. They’re losing a lot. So, it really adds up. Walgreens (closing stores) is a perfect example of what can happen if we don’t have that support that we need. It just doesn’t make financial sense to continue.”

She added that it doesn’t help that shoplifting and thefts are a lower priority for police compared to more serious crimes. “The police are so overworked with everything else that they’re doing. If we’re trying to trespass someone that we know is a known thief, it’s hard for them to come out.”

At this point, Hetrick said it’s too early to know what the full effects of HB 1310 will be on grocery store thefts. At the same time, businesses suffering from increased thefts are handicapped in their ability to raise awareness about the situation. Both Johnson and Hetrick said members are reluctant to speak out about increased thefts over fear that their locations will develop a reputation for being unsafe, which will only compound their financial losses.

“We want people to have a safe environment,” Hetrick said. “We want them to know when they go to the grocery store that’s going to be a safe environment for them.”

For now, Hetrick said they’re focusing on addressing the issue in Seattle, where thefts and shoplifting have been long-term issues. “It’s been that way for some time. That’s why we’ve really been working to come up with solutions to find out how can we be proactive. We’re trying to work there to find these different resources, because a huge concern is the violent side of this. We want to protect the employees and the customers. That’s even more important than the loss itself.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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