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Addressing Organized Retail Crime: Law Enforcement and Retail Partnerships

Following is an example of a successful partnership between retail loss prevention and local law enforcement that resulted in the dismantling of an organized retail crime (ORC) operation in one Florida county. While the details are specific to this particular 2011 investigation, what is important to the LP industry is that ORC is not just a discussion inside retail. Law enforcement is, in fact, interested in working with loss prevention organizations to proactively prevent crime in our stores and the communities we both serve.

Preparing for an Organized Retail Crime Blitz

As 2010 progressed, organized retail crime activity in Florida was high, resulting in significant losses for Luxottica Retail. Therefore, we decided to do a blitz in Florida to try to halt the losses. As usual, we sent invitations to other retailers to join us on this quest to identify and address ORC-related incidents. Macy’s then-ORC manager, John Morris, accepted the invitation to work with us.

Our second step was to solicit help from law enforcement. Our initial calls seemed to generate interest, but no commitments were reached. Time was passing quickly, and we couldn’t get the commitments we needed to secure a safe event. With only four days before the scheduled blitz, a call was made to a neighboring county to ask for suggestions on how to move forward with the blitz if we were not able to gain the necessary law enforcement assistance. That call was specifically made to Sergeant James Ostojic of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

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Loss prevention professionals may remember Sergeant Ostojic and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office from 2008, when their investigation of a shoplifting incident led to the identification of a multimillion-dollar retail theft ring and fencing operation. At the conclusion of that investigation, 18 people were arrested and charged with felonies. Later that year, the Florida Retail Federation honored Sergeant Ostojic as the Retail Officer of the Year.

The 2008 investigation gave the Polk County Sheriff’s Office much notoriety in the ORC arena and paved the way for how retailers and law enforcement can work together to make great things happen. In recent years, Polk County has consistently helped retailers fight the battle against property crimes and ORC. Therefore, it was no surprise that Sergeant Ostojic  extended his hand to help with our pending blitz.

Law Enforcement and Retail Partnerships Image 2The first request Sergeant Ostojic asked was to move some or the entire blitz into Polk County, which would give Polk County jurisdiction should any criminal situation be encountered. We met this request and began discussing the specifics of how to coordinate the efforts of both the retailers and law enforcement.

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Sergeant Ostojic took the plan up the chain of command starting with his immediate supervisor, Captain Andy Ray. Captain Ray in turn received the approval from Sheriff Grady Judd, who gave the go-ahead to gather however many officers would be necessary to carry out the blitz.

Sergeant Ostojic hand-selected each officer who would be involved by what they had to offer. In addition to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, officers were recruited from the Winter Haven Police Department, Lake Wales Police Department, and Lakeland Police Department. In total, eight officers would participate in the blitz, with Sergeant Ostojic supervising the law enforcement contingent.

All the planning and organizing occurred rapidly over a two-day period. A formal operating plan was generated and delivered to both retailers and law enforcement personnel. Sergeant Ostojic conducted an ORC training session for all participants and assigned each officer to specific duties.

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The day before the blitz was scheduled, Captain Ray asked to have dinner with the retailers in order to meet and talk with them. It was an enlightening conversation. Captain Ray was clearly excited about the blitz and that the Sheriff’s County Office was playing a pivotal role.

The following day, a meeting was held to review the plan one last time with everyone involved. At this meeting, participants were partnered to include at least one officer for every retailer, locations were assigned, and everyone went their separate ways.

Launching the Blitz

The first day, one arrest was made, retail property was recovered, and an individual was charged with possession of marijuana and narcotic paraphernalia. While this may have seemed like a disappointing start, it turned out to be just a warm-up session for day two.

Day two began with two arrests at a higher-end department store. A third arrest at another department store nabbed a female suspect who provided critical information for an ongoing police investigation in Polk County. That suspect decided to cooperate and provided information into other crimes that were occurring in surrounding areas. This is an example of how dealing with organized retail crime can lead to information regarding other crimes. The grand finale came near the end of day two when the blitz activities concluded by gathering the evidence that led to the destruction of a large fencing operation located in Winter Haven, Florida.

Law Enforcement and Retail Partnerships Image 3
Participants in the 2011ORC blitz included (from left) Millie Kresevich, Matt Michel, and Mark Flores of Luxottica; Det. Stephanie Burcham of the Lakeland Police Department; and Sgt. Jim Ostojic, Dep. Eliss Mitchell, Dep. Andres Marin, and Det. Joseph Makal of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Not shown is John Morris of Macy’s.

It was about 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. The loss prevention manager from Macy’s mentioned that he had video of a suspect who came into their store routinely and shoplifted high-dollar gift sets of men’s and women’s cologne. The suspect had not been apprehended thus far because he was in and out of the store quickly.

A second piece of intelligence provided was that the suspect often comes in with another male. Almost on cue, not 20 minutes after revealing this information, the suspected cologne thief was seen standing outside the doors of Macy’s. While he wasn’t entering the store, he clearly is interested in something going on inside. Sergeant Ostojic was watching him closely, and I was in the interior of the store. The cologne thief began to head toward his vehicle when his partner, who was already in the store, exits with a stolen pair of sunglasses in hand from Sunglass Hut. The product was not concealed, just carried out by the accomplice. Once the accomplice reached the vehicle, both men were approached by officers and asked to step out of the vehicle. The sunglasses were recovered with the tag still affixed.

Each suspect was placed into a separate room to be interviewed. The accomplice was completely uncooperative and would not provide any information. The cologne thief, however, decided to cooperate. He told Sergeant Ostojic and me that the merchandise he steals is sold at a beverage store in Winter Haven. The suspect alleged a female drug dealer who makes a living from selling drugs as well as stealing and selling retail property introduced him to this store. According to the suspect’s information, once employees of the beverage store purchased the product, it was then sent overseas.

The cologne thief, now turned informant, was asked if he would be willing to go to the beverage store with an officer, represent product as stolen, and sell it to the individuals he has been dealing with. With his willing participation, the wheels of motion were put in place. Within a matter of two hours, the entire sting was orchestrated.

Macy’s provided two gift boxes of cologne for the sting. Additional police officers from Winter Haven were brought aboard. An officer and the informant were dropped off in front of the beverage store. The pair walked into the beverage store, asked the person on the other side of the counter if they want to buy the merchandise they just stole, and the transaction took place. The individual purchasing the stolen goods gave the officer and informant $20 for items worth almost $200.

While the transaction took place inside, a car pulled up in front of the beverage store with what appeared to be rectangular boxes. As the individuals exited the car with the boxes, they noticed the police cars surrounding the store. They immediately jumped back into the car and sped away…in reverse.

The person who purchased the stolen goods was arrested and taken into custody. Drugs, stolen property, and pornography were found in the store.

The Law Enforcement Perspective

This blitz represents a great example of fantastic police work in partnership with retail loss prevention. Every step was handled meticulously, efficiently, and achieved a final result that was “one-up” on the bad guys.

Taking down the fence in these sorts of operations is key. If we can’t stop who is buying the product, there will always be the desire to continue stealing it. It becomes much more difficult to unload retail property once the main fencing operation is eliminated in a certain area.

Speaking from the loss prevention perspective, we can’t thank Polk County enough for their efforts and diligence in helping retailers in their jurisdiction remove a significant piece of the ORC puzzle. While ORC is often discussed among loss prevention professionals, it is important to hear the following perspectives on ORC from key members of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Sergeant James Ostojic
Sergeant James Ostojic

Sergeant James Ostojic

When you received the call about retailers needing help with the blitz in Florida, what made you extend your hand so quickly?

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has a proactive approach on crime and assisting in the blitz reinforces this philosophy. Over the years, I have been involved in several major organized retail crime cases. Similar cases usually begin with something like a shoplifting case then expand to a larger investigation.

Teamwork and coordination are essential as well as timeliness and accuracy for law enforcement and loss prevention personnel during an operation of this magnitude.

Why is the retail partnership important to you and your job?

My job is to proactively prevent crime. Shoplifters educate themselves on new and innovative ways to commit criminal acts. Many times, the items they steal are used in other crimes. As these types of crimes escalate, they often lead to more violent crimes. Our partnership is beneficial to get information that may help lead to solving these types of crimes. It is important from a consumer perspective to remember the loss of profit for the companies and loss of tax revenues. Our job requires us to educate consumers, employees, and the community at large to be on the lookout for unusual activity. Every aspect of the retail partnership is beneficial to me, my job, the businesses, and the community.

What can retailers do better to assist law enforcement in combating ORC?

Retailers should be consistent in holding shoplifters accountable for their actions. For example, a trespass warning may not stop criminal activity. Incarceration will immediately stop the individual from continuing the crime spree. Incarceration often deters future criminal acts.

Retailers can also assist by providing accurate video surveillance to produce the best identification of the offenders. You should continue to monitor the activities of ORC groups and keep the information flowing to law enforcement. Keep in mind, the information must be timely and accurate with detailed accounts of each incident involving the same groups to help with prosecution.

How can law enforcement gain better understanding of the intricate workings of the criminal enterprise through the interview process?

The interview process often leads to information to solve other crimes. It is imperative that a solid interview be conducted with each victim, witness, and suspect in every case. This will ensure we are able to evaluate trends and determine if a larger group is involved. This is important for law enforcement when trying to infiltrate an organized retail crime group. Many criminal activities have widespread criminal operations and are multi-jurisdictional.

Often, the interview process will lead to a better understanding of the depth of the operation and give us information that is critical to solving the crime as well as identifying leaders in the organization. The better the interview, the easier it is to confirm the information to lead to the arrest of criminal enterprise.

Captain Andy Ray
Captain Andy Ray

Captain Andy Ray

You gave the go ahead for law enforcement participation in the blitz very quickly. Why is that?

Because we have been successful in preventing and controlling crime through our proactive efforts, usually based on our data-driven policing model we refer to as PROCAP, which stands for Proactive Community Attack on Problems. We find that those criminals who commit crimes like burglaries and grand thefts in the community are just as likely to commit other criminal acts, including retail theft, whether as an individual or as a participant in a larger organized group. Basically, people who aren’t afraid to commit a felony are just as unafraid to commit a misdemeanor.

By arresting individuals involved in organized retail crime, we are making it clear that we’re serious about crime control in our county, we’re reinforcing that we are paying attention, and we may likely arrest a criminal before he has the opportunity to commit another crime. Basically, it’s what we do every day, and this is just another opportunity for us to interrupt criminal activity.

You took the time to meet the retailers who were involved in the blitz. You also showed up to the blitz to see how things were going and have conversations with those who were apprehended. Why was this important to you?

I see this as an opportunity to meet stakeholders in our community—the store managers and loss prevention specialists—and to demonstrate our interest in what’s taking place in local retail stores. It is also an opportunity to relay to those involved in criminal activity that we take the problem seriously and that their criminality will earn them a ride to jail, rather than just a notice to appear in court. We feel like in order for there to be a deterrent to retail crime, there has to be an immediate consequence that’s not appealing to them.

Polk County, along with several other surrounding police departments, provided many officers to work as undercovers during the blitz.

How would you encourage other police departments to participate in a blitz and provide resources to retailers?

First, I have to mention that the municipal police agencies and the sheriff’s office work well together in Polk County. We don’t have turf issues, and we help each other out. It is very much a team approach. I would offer that the people who are stealing items from retailers are, in many cases, the same people that are breaking into cars or homes and committing other crimes. By focusing on the retail crimes and arresting those offenders, there is a good chance that other crimes in the community will be prevented.

Additionally, by working with the organized retail crime task force, we are trying to interrupt the groups of criminals who profit by stealing large quantities of retail goods. Those thefts create monetary losses for retailers and generally increase the costs for law-abiding consumers in the marketplace. Their criminal activity affects everyone.

From a big-picture perspective, how does dealing with ORC-related issues open the door to gain information regarding other crimes?

Arrestees who all of a sudden find themselves in a pinch are more likely to want to work themselves out of it. If they’re involved in organized retail theft and want to provide information in order to help themselves out, we will listen to them. Now, we won’t offer to let them go on the charge they were just arrested for; they will still have to face the consequences for their actions. On occasion, however, if the information they provide is helpful in solving other crimes, we will share with the prosecutor’s office that the individual provided assistance to us on another case.

This may or may not result in less severe sanctions in court. This blitz was a perfect example. The efforts of the ORC task force and local law enforcement resulted in the identification of a local fence for stolen merchandise.

That led to an undercover operation led by the Winter Haven Police Department that resulted in the arrest of a person operating a local convenience store for dealing in stolen property, as well as other charges, including illicit drug charges.

Sheriff Grady Judd
Sheriff Grady Judd

Sheriff Grady Judd

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is looked at as a leader in combating ORC. Can you share a brief synopsis of the county’s voyage on becoming a recognizable advocate for combating ORC?

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office’s experience with ORC began a few years ago with what initially appeared to be a single individual stealing merchandise from a retail store. However, as the investigation continued, the detective was able to learn that the suspect was part of a larger organized retail crime ring that was mostly involved in the theft of health and beauty products.

As more details were uncovered, the scope of the organized theft ring was revealed. Detectives were assigned full-time to investigate this band of thieves in order to gather enough information on their illegal activities and the identities of the suspects to bring about a successful prosecution.

After months of investigation and consultations with our local state attorney and the assistant statewide prosecutor from the Florida Attorney General’s Office, we were able to secure arrest warrants for the members of this group, charging them under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) laws. These statutes are designed for just such an operation and are designed to enhance penalties for the violation of statutes by an organized group of criminals.

Within months of closing that investigation, deputies discovered another organized group of thieves who were stealing baby formula from retailers. Again, detectives were assigned to this case on a full-time basis in order to connect the dots between the bosses and the thieves in this organization.

After a couple of months of gathering important intelligence and evidence, multiple arrest warrants were secured and the suspects involved in that organized retail theft ring were arrested. Because we know there is a continuing problem with simple retail theft and a significant problem with organized retail theft, we are committed to doing what it takes, locally, to provide a deterrent.

How much time is devoted to property and retail crimes in your county?

A significant amount of time and effort is devoted to the prevention and investigation of property and retail crimes in Polk County. We have 36 detectives who are assigned to the General Crimes Units in our patrol districts. Those full-time detectives are responsible for the investigation of property crimes, including organized retail crimes, and felony person’s crimes.

However, about 85 percent of their time is dedicated to property crimes. If you break that down, that means that we commit some 60,000 hours per year to the prevention and investigation of property crimes.

Many of your deputies are well versed on ORC-related crimes. Can you explain the training or education process that takes place?

Our detectives are chosen from experienced patrol personnel and receive four weeks of additional training specific to property crimes. They are instructed and trained by experienced property crimes detectives.

Our deputies and detectives who are most knowledgeable in ORC issues because they have been assigned to investigate the cases as previously mentioned. They have real-world experience and on-the-job training, initially. I am blessed because I have tremendous talent here at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and the members of this agency learn quickly. Additionally, those detectives with experience investigating these crimes share their knowledge with other deputies and detectives to increase their understanding of the breadth of the ORC problem.

What do you envision as movement in the right direction for law enforcement and retailer partnerships in the future?

The people on the front lines of the retail theft and organized retail crime problem are the men and women working directly for retailers in loss prevention positions. The retailers follow their profit-and- loss margins closely, and they know the trends that are occurring in their individual stores and in their markets.

Formulation of strong partnerships between the retailers and local law enforcement is essential so that when trends are identifiable, that information can be shared in a timely manner so that the two can work together to address those trends in a proactive fashion.

Again, this blitz is a great example. Trends were identified locally by retail LP and brought to our attention. Deputies and officers in plainclothes worked with members of the ORC task force inside local stores over a two-day period. Those efforts resulted in multiple arrests and the identification and arrest of a local business operator who was buying stolen merchandise and then reselling it for his own profit. This success story underscores the importance of a strong partnership.

This article was originally published in 2011 and was updated October 3, 2016.

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