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Everybody Wins: A Fresh Way to Manage the Scourge of Shoplifting

Sponsored by Turning Point Justice

It is certainly provocative, but perhaps not completely untrue, to say shoplifting prevention in the US is a dismal failure. Yes, there have been significant victories on individual fronts. Theft prevention strategies have grown more sophisticated, for example, and great advances have been made in technology to prevent shoplifting and identify when it occurs. But when it comes to managing the problem comprehensively—catching the shoplifter, paying back the victim, and making sure that he or she never offends again—it can seem like we haven’t made much progress at all.

For starters, most shoplifters aren’t caught—1 in 48 by one estimate from the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention—meaning the vast majority of offenses are never addressed. And, when thieves are apprehended, none of the three traditional options for handling cases effectively serve the disparate goals of restitution, accountability, prevention, and cost effectiveness.

One option for retailers is to simply not arrest an individual they spot shoplifting—making the calculation that the time and risks associated with apprehension isn’t worth it. Or, to minimize the administrative burden, a retailer may stop a suspect but opt for “warn-and-release.” Or else a retailer can go all in—call local police and go the route of prosecution. While each choice may have arguments in its favor, they all have downsides.

Ignoring shoplifting surely removes liability and work hours associated with apprehensions, but simply eating losses is not a particularly sustainable security strategy and certainly does a disservice to the community. Warn-and-release followed by a civil recovery letter may limit work hours and recoup a small percentage of losses, but it also does nothing to prevent recurrence. “As far as a message to the shoplifter and preventing recidivism, warn-and-release doesn’t work,” according to Barbara Staib, director of communications at the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention (NASP). “Offenders tell us that the most important factor in whether they shoplift again is their experience the time before and if they got away with it.”

So is taking a harder line the answer? Calling the police might help put an offender on the right track, especially if education is made part of sentencing, but the demand on resources is substantial—from the retailer, law enforcement, and the courts—and certainly out of scale with a small theft by a first time offender. Also, a retailer does not endear itself to local law enforcement if they call every time they nab a petty shoplifter.

In Tampa, Florida, a large volume of calls for service in cases of suspected small-scale shoplifting is resulting in hard feelings, according to a recent investigation by the Tampa Bay Times (May 11, 2016). “[It’s] a huge problem in terms of the amount of time,” complained Officer James Smith, who specializes in retail crime. “We are, as a department, at the mercy of what [retailers] want to do.” Though admonished in the press, Staib says she sympathizes with retailers. “They are in a tight spot—being told to not call them too much. But the only people who win in that scenario are the offenders,” she notes.

Clearly, a better approach is sorely needed. Shoplifting accounts for almost 20 percent of all thefts in the United States, according to US Department of Justice data, and consumes countless public dollars in police, prosecution, and court costs. The average police department can expect to spend over $2,275 to process a typical theft case according to the “Cost of Crime Calculator” from the RAND Corporation (2016). Some district attorneys have admitted to telling retailers flat out not to bring casual shoplifting cases because “the traditional response isn’t sustainable from a resource perspective” (Diverting Shoplifters—A Research Report and Planning Guide, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2012.) Retailers lose billions annually to casual shoplifters and successfully recover losses in only a fraction of cases when they pursue civil recovery according to the Centre for Retail Research.

In short, there are several traditional choices for handling minor shoplifting cases, but not one of them seems to be in the best interest of everyone it impacts.

In the decades that courts have been ordering education programs for offenders, their value in reducing recidivism has become clear. This has been to the benefit of retailers, the community and offenders alike. However, only less than 2 percent of shoplifters who go through the court system ends up in programs, according to NASP. Additionally, laws across the country are being changed to raise felony levels, so even fewer offenders are now getting the court-ordered education they need to steer them in the right direction. Finally, many diversion programs fail one of the primary stakeholders in the process: the retailer. While diversion from the traditional justice process is increasingly common for retail theft cases, only 20 percent of programs involve retailers in the diversion process, according to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) research study. Many other diversion efforts fail to provide accountability to offenders, which strictly limits their overall effectiveness.

“A program won’t work unless each stakeholder reaps benefits in equal measure,” said Staib. “That’s critical to the sustainability of the program.” The everybody-wins approach is driving the success of the new Crime Accountability (CA) Partnership Program, a joint effort of NASP and Turning Point Justice. Through the CA Partnership Program, first offenders that qualify and agree to participate undergo a NASP education program instead of becoming embroiled in the costly criminal justice system. “It’s not just warning and releasing them like we did in the past, and it’s not putting a $20 offender into the criminal justice system,” said Staib.

A significant driver of the CA Partnership Program’s success is the marriage between Turning Point, a technology company that provides the platform retailers use to manage first offender cases and NASP, which has decades-long experience delivering education programs and provides all the hands-on student management. It leverages the value of restorative justice principles but doesn’t wait for the court system to get around to it—and that provides value to law enforcement, retailers, offenders and the community in equal measure. “The partnership happens outside the courts but in cooperation with them, the DA, and law enforcement,” noted Staib.

Paul Jaeckle 2
Paul Jaeckle

Paul Jaeckle, senior director for asset protection at ‎Walmart, said his company has strengthened its relationship with those other stakeholders as a result of its participation in the CA Partnership Program. The enhanced bond is not only because Walmart is reducing calls for service and prosecutions, but also because they’re making communities safer. “The great thing is the program does not deflect risk to other stores,” said Jaeckle. Instead, it reduces criminal activity by investing in individuals who may have made a mistake but can be deterred from re-offending, he said. “Shoplifting can be a gateway crime and this gives us the ability to intercept those individuals early, to let them see the ramifications of their actions and to right wrongs.”

Staib believes the CA Partnership Program is a move along the natural learning curve of a nation that is beginning to effectively come to grips with the problem of petty shoplifting. It’s an evolutionary step forward that extends to retailers the value that courts have been experiencing with restorative justice programs, driven by “brilliant technology” from Turning Point that is changing retailers’ calculation of the value of diversion programs. “Until now, there was no vehicle to provide an ROI to the retailer,” said Staib. Now that a program can deliver positive results to every player touched by a shoplifting incident, Staib expects the CA Partnership Program to become a national model in the years to come. “In ten years this will be absolutely commonplace.”

Jaeckle agrees. He think there is pressure on the retail industry to reevaluate its approach to shoplifting—stemming from ever-changing felony thresholds, to evolving approaches to policing, to how states are crafting laws around civil demand. “That changes things for retailers as well,” he noted. The CA Partnership Program offers retailers a new direction that has uniform stakeholder support. “We are the world’s largest retailer so we probably have the world’s largest number of shoplifters, and we’re thinking about things differently, focusing on a way to reduce the amount of risk and frequency of shoplifting in our stores,” explained Jaeckle. “As a deterrence-type mechanism, restorative justice and the CA Partnership Program fits that strategy.”

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this article.

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