Calvin McDonald, the CEO of Lululemon, the athletic wear brand, took fire recently for terminating two employees who intervened in an organized shoplifting snatch and grab.
Known as “educators,” sales staff in Lululemon stores are told not to intervene during a shoplifting incident. In store video footage, the educators are seen speaking to the thieves and following them out of the store while also calling the police. The thieves were later caught and arrested.
Calling it “only merchandise,” McDonald defended his decision to terminate the educators for violating store policy.
Read Hayes, a criminal justice professor at the University of Florida, and Director of the Loss Prevention Research Council advises his retail clients that confronting thieves can be dangerous and in rare cases deadly.
Hayes is not wrong. John Christi, a security consultant from Redding, told me that while managing a security contract in the San Francisco Bay Area, his armed officers would frequently face combative and abusive thieves who would bully past them while stealing purses and handbags from a high-end department store where Christi had been hired to quell thefts. In another case, an officer hired by Christi was struck by a 2×4 wielding thief on his way out of the same store. Christi will no longer staff retail security contracts.
I recently visited Westfield Valley Mall in San Jose and found its parking lots bristling with cameras and security staff are highly visible. Inside, Bloomingdales was employing off-duty San Jose PD officers to patrol their store – in uniform, which is a practice allowed by the SJPD employment contract.
Further down Highway 101 from San Jose are the Gilroy Premium Outlets. A source at the Gilroy Police Department told me that none of the almost 100 stores instruct their staff to confront shoplifters and only “four or five” will even call the police. He went on to say that the thieves are well organized, wear disguises (hoodies and masks), work in groups, and leave in vehicles that often have removed or obscured plates making it difficult to locate suspects even when captured by security camera footage.
The thieves also know that without a cooperating witness, the police and district attorney have little chance of arresting them, much less obtain a prosecution for what Prop 47 has redefined as a misdemeanor. Since 2016, Prop 57 has eliminated the felony crime of commercial burglary for open retail establishments. Jails will often not hold misdemeanants because they have been filled by AB 109 felons who now serve their time in California’s county jails.
One retailer, commenting on condition of anonymity, reported that their store can lose a staggering $10,000 per week to shoplifters. Certainly not all retail outlets are losing $10,000 per week but even at just 25 percent of that – multiplied by the combined 96 stores – the Gilroy Outlets could be losing one million dollars a week. I asked an officer if that was accurate and he laughed. He said it was probably low.
Gilroy PD reports no activity from Governor Newsom’s Organized Retail Crime (ORC) Task Force in their jurisdiction.
On my way home, I passed the Los Gatos Apple Store to find both an armed and unarmed security officer in front of the store.
I recently served as an elections observer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) in Albania. Despite its sometimes-unsavory reputation for organized crime and being one of the poorest countries in Europe, sidewalk stores and kiosks dot every town I visited and goods are on shelves, racks, and coolers outside the small kiosks where they are located, easily accessible to any would-be thief. I asked my language assistant about the ease of stealing from a kiosk and she replied that no one but perhaps small children would take something without paying – and that’s only because they don’t know better yet.
Late in 2021, Aziza Graves was arrested and is alleged to have committed 120 thefts valued in excess of $40,000 by bypassing self-checkout stands at San Francisco Target stores.
When asked for comment, UC Berkeley Law School Professor Jonathan Simon said that retail stores using self-checkout were “enabling retail theft”. Apparently, he thinks stores are making it too easy by not requiring would-be-thieves to pass through a staffed check-stand. I wonder how he would explain Albania.
Michael Romano, an attorney at Stanford Law School who helped author Prop 47, said Graves could be sentenced to 6 months for every count. He was wrong – at the time of Graves’ arrest, the law did not allow the “stacking” of multiple separately committed misdemeanor thefts to charge a felony. He also perhaps forgot who was the DA in San Francisco at the time. Chesa Boudin, the now recalled DA, released Graves in a few days on an ankle monitor. Romano attributes crime to “poverty, addiction, homelessness, and racism.” I guess $40,000 wasn’t enough for Graves to get by.
Chesa Boudin was recalled but will soon join Simon and Romano in the profession of educating California’s new lawyers as Director of the Berkeley Law School Criminal Law Center.
How can a business lose as much as a half million dollars in a year and stay open? They simply raise prices on their already exclusive products, spread the loss over their worldwide presence – if they have one, and pass on the expense to consumers. To retailers, theft is now a cost of doing business. Ironically, their goods find their way back into the black market of stolen goods to be sold at a huge discount. Retailers are actually competing against themselves for consumers who can find their branded products with tags attached available online. For retailers without multiple stores to which they can spread the loss burden – the consequence can be bankruptcy.
To address violence in the workplace, California State Senator Dave Cortese authored SB 553, which was passed by the Senate on May 31. Citing the killing of a Costco security officer who was trying to prevent a theft, the killing of suspected thief Banko Brown by a security officer, as well as the mass shooting at a Santa Clara County transit yard SB 553, would require employers to provide active shooter training and shoplifter training, yet prohibit employers from maintaining policies that require workers to confront suspected shoplifters. It would also require assessments of why staffing levels can cause workplace violence. When a shoplifter enabled store becomes too dangerous, employers will be required under the bill to refer their staff to something the bill calls a “wellness center.” There is not a word about prevention or criminal accountability in the bill language.
It’s like the well-known scene from “I Love Lucy” where during the journey of the Ricardos and Mertzes across America from New York to Hollywood, they found at one stop that their steering wheel had been stolen – only to have it sold back to them by the thief.
You know it as a criminal racket and it works like this:
You got ripped off? Should’ve locked it up. Caught a thief? That’s Illegal. You’re fired. Call the police? We’ve taken care of them. Want to recover your property? Buy it back from the thieves. Upset or a victim of all of this? Go seek counseling.
Thieves have always been with us – but now policymakers and their advisors are in on the racket.
Such is the new normal.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute, and is the author of the new PRI study on California’s growing crime trend, “Paradise Lost.”