June 3, 2022
Retail theft surge prompts varied responses
Matt Benoit

The presence of security guards in local businesses does not necessarily increase the sense of security on the part of customers, and in fact makes some feel less safe. As retailers respond to increases in theft and burglaries with security guards, some local residents suggest there are better ways to address the problem.

June 3, 2022
Retail theft surge prompts varied responses
Matt Benoit

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In mid-April, longtime Bellingham resident Clyde Ford walked into the Cordata Community Food Co-op and saw something he’d never seen before.

A security guard, large in stature and wearing a dark jacket with the word SECURITY emblazoned across the back, was stationed near the front of the store. 

Ford was told that due to a recent incident in which a co-op employee was assaulted, store management had contracted the services of a local security firm to dissuade the likelihood of future incidents.  

But the unarmed guards actually make Ford — and other shoppers he spoke to — feel intimidated and less safe. Even a store manager told Ford the security presence hadn’t made him feel more secure. 

“His sense was, ‘If somebody wants to do harm, and we post a guard, they’re just going to come with a bigger weapon’,” Ford said.

A recent rise in some types of crime locally — especially retail-based theft — has led some businesses to post guards, armed or unarmed, inside stores in an attempt to curb theft or the potential of violence against employees who might try to stop it.  

Last year, over $2.7 billion in retail theft occurred in Washington, according to the Retail Industry Leaders Association. 

Among local grocery and variety stores, Fred Meyer has posted guards at its Lakeway store. Directly across the street, however, Whole Foods has none. Haggen and Safeway also lack security guards in their stores, while WinCo has a security patrol monitoring its parking lot. Wal-Mart also employs the services of a security company at its Bellingham store; an employee was reportedly punched in the face by a shoplifter during a May incident. 

So how do local businesses determine whether to engage guards or not? And who is responsible for the recent rise in retail theft? 

Opportunists and escalations

At Bellingham’s Hardware Sales, a small uptick in shoplifting is occurring, according to the store’s loss prevention officer.

A bigger uptick, however, has occurred with after-hours break-ins to the business’s outer supply yards and buildings.

“For the outside yards, we just recently lost empty propane tanks,” said the officer, who wanted his name withheld for security purposes. “We’ve also had break-ins into buildings where we’ve lost lawn and garden power equipment, and another break-in where we’ve lost welding equipment.”

The store has responded by keeping fewer items outside, better securing those that remain outdoors and even welding shut a building entrance that was previously broken into.

Many of these incidents, said the officer, seem to be the work of opportunists, stealing whatever can be exchanged for other goods or money in the easiest way possible. 

“All retail in the city is losing items,” he said. “And it’s at the levels that we’ve never seen before.”

The officer, who is part of a local, informal loss-prevention discussion group of several dozen people from both independent and corporately owned retailers, said that in some cases the same people appear to be repeatedly engaging in retail theft at stores where they know employees won’t stop them due to liability concerns.

Hardware Sales, however, operates differently. 

“We do stop people when we ascertain that they’ve stolen from us,” the officer said. “We’re allowed to do that under a Washington state law that allows retailers to actively detain somebody, and we have always done that. If you come to Hardware Sales and steal from us, we will stop you.”

Items stolen from various retailers with high frequency include power tools, generators, clothing, shoes, and sporting goods such as tents and outdoor equipment — the latter two likely by unsheltered people, he said. 

The current scope of the problem, the officer continued, may not be accurately reflected in local statistics due to just how often it’s happening. 

At a May 16 Bellingham virtual town hall on public safety, City of Bellingham Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich said underreporting is a reality. For example, one local big box retailer recorded more than $2 million in losses over the last year, but only filed 30 reports relating to property loss or theft during that time. [Editor’s note: Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey and Bellingham Deputy Police Chief Don Almer reported to Bellingham City Council on recent crime statistics and related issues on May 9; presentation recordings are linked in the meeting minutes.]

Many in local loss prevention are also worried about the potential for violence. 

While Hardware Sales’ officer hasn’t had it happen to him yet, he’s heard more frequent cases of thieves brandishing knives or pepper spray and, in some cases, even insinuating or showing they have firearms, he said. 

Brazen and organized

Local law enforcement is, of course, aware of the apparent increase of retail theft.

Bellingham Police Department Lieutenant Claudia Murphy notes that while shoplifting — defined as the theft of items worth less than $50 — is a municipal code violation, third-degree theft — up to $750 — is a misdemeanor under state law. 

Organized retail theft, however, is a felony, Murphy said. In these cases, theft rings that operate up and down the Interstate 5 corridor often dispatch multiple people into a store at the same time. These thieves, she added, often have a specific list of things to steal — say a particular brand of jeans — and often target items offering the highest potential resale value. 

Still other thieves enter stores, fill shopping carts with hundreds of dollars’ worth of merchandise and then leave, knowing they won’t be physically stopped. Because of current state laws regarding vehicle pursuits, Murphy said that even BPD often can’t pursue suspects if they drive away from a retail theft. 

Officers can follow a suspect while they’re obeying traffic laws and refusing to stop, but once that suspect speeds up and attempts to elude officers in a reckless way, officers cannot continue pursuing, even on a felony theft offense, she said. Further complicating matters is the fact that some thieves use stolen cars, meaning even a license plate number can’t be traced back to them. 

“There is a brazenness of people who steal from the stores, because they feel like, at times, they are invincible and no one can stop them,” Murphy said. 

Police can still pursue suspects on foot, of course, if probable cause for a crime has been established. But this too is often less than ideal, since police often arrive well after someone has left the area in which a crime was committed. 

Even so, arrests can and do get made, even after thefts are committed. Police utilize surveillance cameras and witnesses to identify suspects, resulting in a court summons being mailed to them. Even an unhoused suspect can be mailed a summons, Murphy said, at either a last-known mailing address or another established mailing address they use. 

Those who are habitually ticketed but not responsive will eventually have warrants issued for their arrest, and when that happens, they will go to jail, Murphy said. 

Other strategies

At Village Books, with locations in Fairhaven and Lynden, there are no guards minding entrances or taking up space between the aisles.

While shoplifting has always been a concern for the popular local bookseller, co-owner Sarah Hutton said they haven’t seen the type of brazen crime that would make them consider drastic measures.  

“It would probably be one of the last things that we would try and do,” she said. “There is a certain balance and a certain aesthetic that we want to achieve as a retail establishment.”

Hutton said the bookstore trains its employees to respond in specific ways if they see a theft occurring in the store. Non-guard tactics are also utilized at places like the Skagit Valley Food Co-op and Whatcom Education Credit Union, where specific employees are trained in conflict de-escalation, Ford said. 

Ford would like to see Bellingham’s Co-op stores adopt similar methods, but it’s unknown how or when that will happen. (Salish Current made repeated attempts to obtain comment from Co-op management for this story, but received no response.)

After posting about the security changes at the Co-op on Facebook, Ford started a change.org petition asking Co-op management to consider removing the guards. As of June 3, 35 people had signed the document, which suggests the Co-op implement a transparent security plan that protects people, such as using on-premises de-escalation teams or other “ethical, creative solutions.” 

“My basic feeling is that there is a rise in crime in Bellingham, but the solution is not to have a rise in armed or unarmed security,” Ford said. “There’s great research which shows that greater policing does not reduce violence. In fact, it may actually precipitate greater violence.”

When it comes to the using security guards, Hutton points out that the decision is not just a safety matter, but also a financial one. Security is an added labor or business expense, she said, and it’s up to each business to determine if the value of goods lost to theft exceeds the cost of increased security. 

“I understand that things have gotten to a certain point where folks need to make the best decisions for their business,” she said. “I hope we don’t have to make that decision, but if we need to, we will.”

— Contributed by Matt Benoit

Also read: “Recent robberies prompt new look at security for cannabis retailers,” Salish Current, Feb. 11, 2022

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