CLEAR Comes of Age: Ten Years on the Crime Fighting Partnership Hits Its Stride

As the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail (CLEAR) celebrates the tenth anniversary of its first conference this month in San Diego, it’s natural to question its maturity in human terms. Is the partnership aging gracefully? Is it starting to show its age? Is it still going strong, or is it in decline? Perhaps an apt metaphor for CLEAR entering its second decade is a child on the precipice of adolescence: still hopeful, not without challenges, and hitting a growth spurt.

The comparison fits in another way. For just as pre-teens undergo change to ready for the future, so too is CLEAR. Far from slowing down or resting on its accomplishments, the organization is responding to changing priorities in both law enforcement and retail arenas with fresh ideas in leadership, partnership, and training—all while staying true to its founding principles. Importantly, the moves seem to be resonating with stakeholders. In just the last year, CLEAR has doubled in size.

Equal Partnership
As CLEAR transitioned from an idea to a national organization, populating the group’s board of directors was a key concern. Cofounders Frank Muscato and Jack Gee reached out to state associations in law enforcement and recruited the top experts in retail loss prevention to build the team with one nonnegotiable requirement, there had to be equal representation—50 percent retail, 50 percent from law enforcement. That even partnership was the group’s driving force, one that persisted until 2017. It was then when CLEAR decided to expand their board positions to include leaders in online marketplaces and solution providers.

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Ben Dugan

“We want to hear from everybody,” said Ben Dugan, CFI, current president of CLEAR and a manager of ORC and corporate investigations at CVS Health. “That is how we stay relevant,” remarked Dugan. “We bring people with different levels of experience and expertise together to confront the biggest challenges facing retail crime nationwide.”

CLEAR was also intended to be a gateway to mutual understanding. “At its origin, law enforcement did not have a full appreciation for how valuable retail partners could be in an investigation,” said Gee. “They didn’t realize that the shoplifting incident might be part of a million-dollar criminal organization,” he said. Or they didn’t realize that organized merchandise theft was probably just one aspect of a multifaceted crime enterprise, which might include narcotic trafficking, human trafficking, and other crime. “The goal was to try to educate law enforcement and introduce the two sides to one another to forge understanding, to let them get together to learn from one another,” recalled Gee.

Like law enforcement, retailers also needed an attitude adjustment, specifically to overcome a hesitancy to share information with competitors. “It was such a different time,” explained Dugan, who has been an advisor and a member of CLEAR since its inception and a board member for four years before taking over as president. “Some retailers thought keeping case intelligence about ORC to themselves gave their companies a competitive edge.” That changed, of course. It soon became obvious that the problem was simply too widespread to fight alone without everyone paying the price, and CLEAR provided an important venue for knowledge transfer. “Over time, sharing information has acted as a force multiplier [for retailers] and allowed for solving cases much quicker and far more inexpensively,” said Dugan. “We can share intelligence about criminal activity while still protecting proprietary information and competing for sales.”

Jack Gee

Practical training was also a founding principle of CLEAR, said Gee. “One of the things that I had noticed when I went to the national retail events was that it was very top-driven, with programs aimed at senior executives in LP. We wanted to focus on delivering practical information and training for the detectives and corporate investigators actually doing the work—to take a more bottom-up approach,” he said. CLEAR conferences still maintain a “bring your supervisors for free” program to help executives appreciate the importance of the work being done by their boots-on-the-ground investigators.

CLEAR’s early years were not without challenges. A national law enforcement group perceived the upstart as a competitor, according to Gee, and a national retail organization also was “not a fan of ours” at the outset. “They were not sure what we were all about,” he said. “But soon both sides realized that this was something different, which was filling a void and not taking attention away from established groups or events.”

Gee acknowledged they had some hills to climb. “Getting the word out was a big thing, and attracting the right people to the board, but when you’re looking at creating a national organization, it’s an incredible job to try to do.”

CLEAR pushed past initial obstacles and gradually gained momentum, making enormous strides in bridging the gap between law enforcement and retail corporations, so they can work together to help fight organized retail crime, say leaders.

Jason Davies

“ORC is a global issue. It’s in every town, in every state, in every country,” said CLEAR vice president Jason Davies, CFI, CORCI, SMIA, director of ORC and central investigations at Macy’s. “We must not silo ourselves; we’ve got to join together and unite the fight—that is our thought process.”

Frank Muscato retired from retail and resigned from the CLEAR board in 2010, while Jack Gee stayed on as president until 2014 when Curt Crum, from the Boise Police Department, moved into the role. “The smartest thing I ever did was get Curt Crum to replace me,” said Gee.

Like Muscato and Gee, Crum was among the first to recognize the direct line that often exists between store theft and other crimes and enlisted in the fight against ORC. He also saw the untapped potential of better communication and initiated monthly meetings in the Boise area to pull together retail and law enforcement. Exacerbated by uncertainty over what kind of information could be shared, there was no coordination between law enforcement and retail—nor among retail stores themselves, according to Crum. “There was no coordination from store to store,” he explained. “You might have an active thief, but store A wouldn’t go to store B in the same mall to say, ‘Hey, these guys are in your store right now.’”

Curt Crum

Boise was the right size for a strong law enforcement and retail partnership to flourish—big enough to attract ORC groups but small enough to forge strong local partnerships and to see tangible benefits from their efforts. “We all got in the same room, comparing notes. And what we found was that we were able to solve and prevent a lot of crime based on the information that we were getting from the retail stores. We could mutually help each other to solve all types of crime.”

Success in the Boise area grew into a regional program that extended to Salt Lake City and Southern Idaho, getting an efficiency boost as email took off. “Some people can’t imagine that we once had to coordinate without the benefit of email,” Crum said. In 2009, a flyer for a conference in Reno from a new group caught his eye. “I thought to myself that this is exactly what we were doing in our area, but they’re trying to do it on a national scale.” Crum went as an attendee, but by the time he left Reno, he’d been drafted to serve on CLEAR’s board. He served as president from 2014 until the 2018 conference and now serves on the board and as CLEAR’s legislative chairman.

Under Crum, CLEAR grew and evolved while remaining faithful to its original vision. “We’ve tried to stay true to our mission,” said Crum. “CLEAR’s goal was to bring together stakeholders, so we can work together, get rid of misperceptions, and open up direct lines of communication. It was designed to give the men and women in LP and law enforcement who are tracking these groups the tools, skills, and information they need to be maximally effective—and that has never fallen away.”

That is not to say that CLEAR hasn’t changed. With its mission intact, it still needed to evolve to stay aligned with the world of ORC.

National Impact
CLEAR now has a greater focus on information and training to help stakeholders pursue suspects as they move to social media, for example, and on software and hardware tools that make investigations easier. Former impediments, like eBay, have been turned into proactive partners, consuming a spot on the CLEAR board of directors and aiding the fight against online fencing operations. Closer ties have been formed with state associations and other conferences, such as NRF Protect, to boost working relationships between LP and law enforcement. In 2018, Bob Morocca, current vice president of loss prevention for NRF, joined CLEAR’s executive advisory board.

“CLEAR has developed relationships and fosters those relationships, so those of us on the front lines every day have the assistance we need to combat this fifty-billion-dollar industry,” said Crum. “And we try to stay ahead of the curve with our conference, to gear it to what’s hot, to new tools to help fight ORC, and on the training side, to connect with good partners, so we can provide the best training you can get.”

Helping to build trust has been a significant accomplishment of CLEAR’s first decade. “The problem I’d hear most about is the lack of communication, so I think hurdles at the beginning were largely about trust,” said Crum. “It’s been hard-fought, but I think trust is now much improved. And that is why communication is at the soul of the CLEAR conference and mission.”

Frank Muscato

Muscato said closer contact made short work of previously difficult challenges. “They made a lot of people very happy in that retailers didn’t have to do a search when they wanted to find someone to help on a case, because if you’re in CLEAR, you can make one phone call and get the contacts or information you need to be successful. It’s been the best avenue for bringing people together,” said Muscato.

Mitzi Perry

CLEAR’s activities have also directly translated into putting dangerous criminals behind bars, according to Mitzi Perry, a retired investigator at the St. Petersburg (FL) Police Department, who was a founding CLEAR board member and served as its law enforcement training director until 2018. “Our partnerships with retail loss prevention are primarily focused on preventing retail crime but have led to arrests for everything including homicide, armed robbery, narcotics trafficking, burglary, aggravated assault, vehicle theft, sexual abuse of a child, and sexual assault.”

Those wins are a natural outgrowth of building relationships on a national level, according to Crum. “You can be a retailer working on a case in Idaho that might have ties to South Florida. So that’s a nice thing about a national conference, where you can make those contacts and share information. It provides a foundation that can lead to a much bigger case than you’d be able to make otherwise.”

Muscato agreed. “There are many cases—cases that have made people’s careers—that could never have happened without CLEAR,” he said. “Law enforcement and retail investigators did the work, but CLEAR was the conduit that brought them together and forged the partnership.”

For the last ten years, CLEAR has served a valuable purpose by providing consistency and focus on an issue that isn’t always top of mind and where players come and go. It’s not uncommon for ORC to move on and off the radar of retail executives and law enforcement engagement is always relative to other priorities and tied to resources. It helps, said Crum, to have the organization “constantly beat the drum that [working on ORC] will help you be successful in your fight against these types of crime.”

According to Gee, CLEAR understands that people come and go on both sides of the equation. “People retire and are being replaced by a new generation, which doesn’t have that skill set or hasn’t formed those partnerships yet. We provide a space where they can learn and form the partnerships that they will need to be successful.”

After one year as CLEAR’s president, Ben Dugan thinks it’s important to retain that focus even as the organization evolves. “We used to assume that everyone was well educated in ORC and investigations, but we found that at CLEAR conferences there were always people who had never worked a case. So every year we provide the basics on what a case should look like, how to work it and bring it to a positive resolution,” said Dugan. “Every year, by design, we’re sure to provide assistance to those new investigators out there.” “However, most of our training is highly advanced,” remarked Dugan. “We address complex investigative techniques and strategies to address national problems at the highest levels.”

The organization has always been intent on providing cutting-edge instruction. This year’s agenda includes four prosecutors and investigators from the largest police agencies and national retailers from across the country to address the rise in serial violent crime and complex ORC and social engineering fraud affecting national retailers. The conference is supported with presentations by the FBI, US Homeland Security, and FEMA.

The training at CLEAR conferences has made a real-world difference, according to Jason Davies. “People want to come to CLEAR because they know those experts and exceptional trainers are here, and it acts as a budget-saver because it’s one place where staff can go to get the most impactful training possible,” he said. Ordinarily, it can take up to two years for an investigator to be truly dangerous to the bad guys, Davies added, so CLEAR strives to make available tools and knowledge investigators need to make a difference more quickly. The benefits of that then ripple across the industry, he said, “because they go back and share the knowledge with everyone around them.” And it’s not just investigative know-how. “We’ve looked to help them enhance their business acumen to truly increase the value that they bring to their organizations.”

“CLEAR has also helped retailers accelerate their ORC preventative and investigative efforts,” according to Dugan. “You can’t have an effective ORC program unless you also have a strong relationship with law enforcement wherever you do business.” Dugan added that CLEAR is a resource that gives ORC investigators immediate access to law enforcement and experts in external retail crime. “This immediately provides a way to advance a program,” he said. “If you look at who has taken advantage of the relationships that CLEAR facilitates, they are the retailers that have the best ORC programs today.”

CLEAR also has value for retailers with no ORC program at all. “For those that have done away with ORC teams, they rely on CLEAR to help them do what their teams used to do for them,” explained Davies, who has been a CLEAR member since the beginning. “If they have a fraud problem but don’t have a team, they will come to us as a resource and to help them with case closures. As we see more staff reductions, there is even more reliance on entities like CLEAR.”

CLEAR’s effectiveness as an organization is reflected in the interest from people in the industry. This year’s conference looks like it might draw double the number of attendees from a year ago, and it’s poised to triple the number of participating vendors.

Gregg Oxfeld

Gregg “Ox” Oxfeld of Securitas Electronic Security, director of vendor relations, has been involved with CLEAR as a vendor partner, representing different companies, since CLEAR’s inception. “This is probably the most exciting year so far,” he said, noting that support of vendor partners seems poised to positively affect the organization in the years to come.

Although it’s a little different, the return on investment for vendor partners is substantial, Oxfeld explained. “It’s not ROI as corporate America would generally look at it, with direct leads from booth visits. The ROI is more about creating meaningful relationships.” The conference format also allows participating vendors more direct exposure than in some larger settings, he suggested.

Response to CLEAR’s participation at the 2019 NRF Protect show in Anaheim was “amazing,” said Oxfeld, suggesting that the organization’s focused effort to raise awareness about its work is paying off. Vendors this year represent a broad range of solutions, many servicing a pressing need of investigators—ways to get more, faster, and more accurate information.

Even as they put final touches on this year’s show, Oxfeld said they are eagerly looking ahead to next year, noting the uptick in financial growth and vendor interest and adding that he’d like to tap more vendors that supply and outfit police departments. Success of conference events, he said, “always comes down to support of the vendor community—we all know that.” And although participating vendors derive great benefit from the relationships that a somewhat more “boutique event” affords, Oxfeld thinks CLEAR deserves vendor support regardless. “I think it is our fiduciary responsibility to participate in as many trade shows as we can, to advertise as often as we can in as many magazines we can,” said Oxfeld. “We have a responsibility as the vendor community to support the industry that has supported us.”

CLEAR’s Future
Success hasn’t diminished its necessity. CLEAR has helped to create and strengthen relationships between retail and law enforcement but Dugan suggests that it goes much deeper. “In the last ten years, ORC investigators and property crimes detectives have developed a complex interdependency on one another,” he said. “We leverage our relationships with each other not just on investigations but to keep our communities and businesses safer and better places to work and live.” That will always be the ultimate mission of CLEAR, he said.

The group’s progress, however, hasn’t made it less indispensable. Indeed, the need for cooperation seems to be expanding. “There are always changes with partnerships,” said Dugan. “Law enforcement priorities can change without notice and no retailer looks the same as it did ten years ago.”

Mitzi Perry, now a member of the CLEAR advisory board, sees both internal and external challenges in the future. “These include reduction or elimination of retail loss prevention personnel, cuts in police training budgets, and trying to stay ahead of the criminals because of changing technology,” she said.

Decriminalization is another test for CLEAR, with many states migrating toward higher felony thresholds for merchandise theft and police departments recalibrating priorities as a result. “Our legislative director, Curt Crum, works directly with legislators, including on the ORC bill in California, which Home Depot has now used successfully on multiple occasions,” said Dugan, referring to legislation cosponsored by Assemblyman John Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a presenter at this year’s CLEAR conference. “Stakeholder awareness is the number one piece of that CLEAR effort, but also education of politicians and the public—we do a little bit of everything.”

Cofounder Jack Gee said he’d like to see CLEAR become even more influential in the legislative arena, noting that the country needs national changes in property crime laws. “Law enforcement and retailers have a better understanding of retail crime than legislators and the general public. I’m hoping CLEAR might become a player on the national scene,” he said.

“ORC legislation is a tougher road now than in the past,” said Dugan, citing a recent rise in anti-police sentiment and decriminalization efforts in multiple states. “There is a national negative narrative around the police profession that complicates the process on all sides.” And although much improved, cooperation among retailers is still a work in progress. Getting retailers to buy in to the importance of sharing information with competitors is an ongoing challenge, some said.

Another challenge for CLEAR, said Dugan, is to identify and address the expanding array of issues on which retailers and law enforcement need to cooperate, such as the significant rise in juvenile violent crime, specifically armed robberies. “Suspects involved in these crimes are becoming more violent and getting younger.”

“I think crisis management is an area in which we as an industry can do better,” agreed Jason Davies. “One of the growing trends is armed robbery, more violence, and shootings.” CLEAR has responded by having a session at this year’s conference focused on juvenile armed robbery by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also been invited to present at this year’s conference as CLEAR looks to expand the scope of subjects on which retailers and law enforcement might effectively partner. “What retailers and law enforcement can do on a national level goes beyond investigations,” said Dugan. “Going forward we will be expanding our discussions around crisis management and business continuity. Strengthening partnerships is a key to addressing many problems—not just ORC.”

CLEAR’s future may include acting as a conduit for establishing better ties in this area, so law enforcement and retailers might work more effectively together to assist the public in critical times, as well as working collaboratively to address violence-related mass events, tragically underscored recently by the twenty-two murders in an El Paso Walmart. “What was initially a vision to form an organization that helps fight organized retail crime has grown into something more than that,” said Mitzi Perry. “Ten years later, we are not only fighting organized retail crimes but also forming great partnerships to better our communities.”

One of the groundbreaking sessions at this year’s CLEAR conference will be presented by Cathy Langley, VP of LP at Rite Aid—a review of an active shooter event that occurred at the Rite Aid Distribution Center in Maryland in 2016. Every year, CLEAR has an active shooter presentation. In 2018, attendees in Myrtle Beach were stunned as SWAT officers from the Orlando Police Department narrated events from the deadly shooting at the Pulse Night Club in 2016. Dugan said he wanted an equally eye-opening session on this year’s agenda from the victim-retailer perspective.

There are several other cutting-edge sessions at this year’s CLEAR conference, including a presentation by Detective Bryan Barlow of the Chicago Police Department. The session, “Interviewing Victims of Traumatic Events,” will provide valuable techniques for successfully gathering information from violent crime victims or witnesses, according to Dugan. “As investigators, when we respond to the scene, we are immediately focused on gathering evidence. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what the victims (employees) are going through emotionally, explained Dugan, adding that the presentation will help investigators be both thorough and empathic. Dugan also stated that often the cost of counseling for traumatized employees is greater than the losses incurred from the event. “Taking special care when dealing with these victims is the right thing to do at all levels,” he said. This year’s conference will also be introducing the new Clear Leadership Series with a special session for “Women in Leadership” presented by Captain Kate Adams of the Sacramento County (CA) Sheriff’s Office and another member of the CLEAR board.

“These special sessions are more examples of CLEAR’s new approach to preparing both public and private investigators with the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitude to do difficult work,” said Dugan.

CLEAR leaders know that risks—and the retail and law enforcement partnering that can reduce them—are a moving target, so they are looking several years down the road to lay the groundwork to be effective tomorrow. “With any entity there are always lots of opinions about direction,” said Davies. “We do a lot of brainstorming on how we should evolve and how we stay relevant, and a lot of listening to our members about what they’re looking for.”

CLEAR will need to answer certain questions such as: If the original idea was to break down silos, and we want to address workplace violence, should HR now be invited to the conversation? And what about national information-sharing platforms? How can that goal be met in a secure and effective manner? Or can it?

Ultimately, CLEAR seeks to forge partnerships to create strategies and advance solutions to disrupt criminal enterprises, something that takes foresight. “We have to look many years out, to figure out what the issues are and what they are going to be, just like we’ve been talking in the past few years how technology expands the theft and fraud space, social engineering, fraud associated with [buy online, pickup in store], and scan-and-pay,” said Davies.

This is what he suggested CLEAR is focusing on now: how to maintain its growth and stay aligned with changes in risk, all while staying true to that original vision that took shape at a conference lunch a decade ago (see sidebar). “The issues demanding attention are so much larger and far-reaching than ever before. How can we be as impactful as we can be?”

SIDEBAR: The Birth of CLEAR

It started over lunch. Jack Gee, a detective in the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Police Department, and Frank Muscato, an organized retail crime (ORC) investigator at Walgreen’s, sat together at a yearly training meeting of a law enforcement coalition in Las Vegas. With Texas backgrounds in common, the two had hit it off right away and often chatted at coalition meetings.

There were a few such efforts at the time, but these events tended to tilt in one direction or the other—a retail get-together that extended an invite to police departments or law enforcement training initiatives that let LP take part, not exclusionary, exactly, but not 50/50 either.

The two friends groused during the conference lunch, wondering if there wasn’t a better way. “We were saying to one another that there needed to be something for law enforcement and retail that is a real thing, not something that is more law enforcement and less retail, or more retail and less the other,” Muscato said. By the time the break was winding down, the grumbling had become an idea, and the idea had become a plan—for a new national partnership organization. “We wanted an entity where we are really in it together, as equal partners, and where we actually share information to solve the serious national issues of retail crime.”

The issue was important to Detective Jack Gee, who is now retired after thirty years of police work but remains on CLEAR’s executive advisory board. His interest began more than a decade before that conference lunch, arising from an undercover investigation into stolen property from area convenience stores. It was a major case that involved the FBI, and in the execution of a search warrant, in addition to stolen goods, they uncovered written references to the Miami-Dade Airport, Arabic notations about the difficulty of flying 747s, and evidence that the local retail crime ring Gee was tracking was sending money overseas. The Middle Eastern crime ring behind it all was also buying sets of personal data—IDs, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

“It turned out that retail crime was how this terrorist group was making their money,” said Gee. “It was a real lesson for me on how important retail had become, and how important the retail industry is in disrupting all levels crime.”

His interest piqued, Gee began working in earnest with state associations. Quickly, he became a recognized leader on the issue of organized retail crime, providing training on the subject for both police and retail asset protection at respective conferences. “One thing I noticed was that there were no combination events where the both of them would be,” he said.

Muscato, meanwhile, was on a parallel track in the Dallas Police Department’s intelligence division, his eyes opening in the early 1990s after helping Walmart on a major investigation into thefts of videotapes, in which teams of thieves would clear out $5,000 in merchandise at a time. “Retail was working hard to get law enforcement to recognize repeated thefts as a criminal conspiracy.” acknowledged Muscato.

“The Walmart case helped introduce Muscato to the world of repetitive theft of retail goods for resale, or what he started to call “organized retail crime.” It also landed him a new job. Muscato left the Dallas PD to work for Walmart, helping the retailer to bridge the gap with law enforcement and getting state legislators to recognize—and codify—this new threat of “ORC.” His efforts solidified his view that the battle is best fought jointly. It had to be a team effort.

To read more about the birth of CLEAR, see “Taking a CLEAR Approach to Greater Success against Retail Crime” in the July–August 2009 print edition or online at LossPreventionMedia.com.

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