“I don’t know. This is just a corporate victim,” the prosecutor tells me before court.
I had just asked her for the conditions of bond to have an order restricting the defendant from coming back to the store. “I have other crimes to deal with today. One’s with people with faces and violent crimes. You know, real victims.”
Despite her partially dismissive attitude she was trying to be as helpful as she could with such a frenetic docket. However, time and time again, I hear this in court.
I can’t say I totally blame her in this opinion. I held the same opinion before I started this job. But my eyes have since been opened.
The Link Between Retail Crime and Other Large Crimes
“I think it’s really important to note that not all boosters are created the same,” said Commander Charlie Anderson, Saint Paul Police (SPD), when I interviewed him specifically for this article.
Commander Anderson isn’t just a commander with SPD, but the former executive director of the Minnesota Organized Retail Crime Association and was a part of the cross-industry retail partners group that helped to draft Minnesota’s new organized retail crime bill. MN Stat. § 609.522. That bill went into effect August 1, 2023, and we are already seeing results in our offices.
“You have the local booster who is, you know, very low, low economic class, oftentimes unsheltered, or maybe a person in crisis with addictions or mental illness,” Commander Anderson continues. “They don’t usually have their own transportation. So they often take mass transit. And they work alone, usually, or together to basically steal items to resell in a parking lot, or even just pan it in a way that’s almost like panhandling. They are just basically trying to get by stealing a bunch of steaks from the grocery store and selling them in the White Castle parking lot out of their trunk.
“But then you also have your regional booster, who is a much younger, much more diverse set of people who have now figured out how to use online marketplaces or their own network of customers, basically, to fulfill orders regionally for any number of goods. Some of them will specialize in specific type of goods.
“Then you have the national and transnational fencers where you have crime syndicates that are clearly organized, with multiple layers of hierarchy, to which some of these other boosters fit into that scheme.
“What you have proliferating throughout all of this is other crimes, whether it be on the lower level, narcotics crimes, firearms offenses, and at the higher levels, human trafficking. A woman who’s being trafficked can operate either alone or with others to support a john or the overarching criminal enterprise by stealing mass quantities of whatever item it may be—maybe it’s cologne, or maybe it’s Victoria’s Secret.”
Not simply a corporate victim.
Sure, in our stores we have seen stolen candy bars. But we have also seen armed robberies, the local booster Commander Anderson describes, and the more organized booster selling online. These boosters continue to take items from stores every day by the armful and basketful. The continuous drip of retail theft coupled with violent robberies and verbal threats wear down employees on the floor and chips away at their wellbeing.
Reducing retail crime isn’t just about inventory loss, it’s also about protecting the associates that deal with this everyday while making an honest living as well as curbing the societal monster of gun, drug, and human trafficking. To the prosecutors that one solo defendant is simply the visible tip of the iceberg acting alone to steal some items from a faceless corporation. To us, the defendant is part of a larger, more dangerous structure that is harder to see in our courts and hurts real people.
Enter Minnesota’s Organized Retail Crime Bill
Luckily, unbeknownst to the prosecutors I work with daily, Commander Anderson and a group of dedicated professionals made up of law enforcement, retailers, and advocacy organizations have been working for five years in drafting a law aimed at combating this iceberg of organized retail crime.
What started as a very small asset protection and law enforcement partnership in the midway area of St. Paul soon turned into one of the tightest state laws to combat organized retail crime.
“I first began to understand organized retail crime in 2011. And that led to the formation of the organized retail crime unit in the St. Paul Police Department in 2013. We were trying to gather tools to tackle the issue and that toolbox was pretty limited.”
That toolbox, Commander Anderson relates, is the theft statute in existence at the time and up until August 1, 2023. The Minnesota theft statute allows for the aggregation of a crime in any given six month period to reach a threshold of $500 for a misdemeanor or $1,000 for a felony.
But that involves a lot of work unless all the cases were in one city under the same police department. Commander Anderson explains, “You used to have to have to reach out to multiple city attorney’s offices, get administrative dismissals, get all the information from the thefts that happened in those other jurisdictions.”
Typically the payoff for all of that work was to maybe end up with a felony to charge the suspect but that seemed like the exception and not the rule. “It just was a very limited set of tools for law enforcement,” Anderson said.
Soon Commander Anderson’s group realized the viability of a standalone organized retail crime bill. During this time, their Saint Paul coalition grew to the seven county metro area, and then into the statewide Minnesota Organized Retail Crime Association in 2014.
Crafting the Language
Commander Anderson’s group met at a local university on and off for the next five years discussing the bill’s language. “The most important part is delineating in the mind of the legal system the difference between shoplifting itself and organized retail crime,” Commander Anderson pointedly and rightfully said about the bill. It’s on us, the retail industry partners, to show this delineation.
While carefully distilling down the best language, the team also started working on the next step of getting a sponsor for the bill. You need somebody who is connected with the lobbying wing of policymaking, whether or not you voted for them. “You need as many friends as you can get,” Commander Anderson says. “One of your best friends that you’ll ever have is someone who’s intimately connected with the ins and outs of a political process.” For him, that friend was Bruce Nustad of the Minnesota Retailers Association. With Nustad on board, Anderson said, “We then had the recipe for success.”
In the end, Anderson and his group had a strong bill defining organized crime in Minnesota. The specific language of the bill addresses the resale of stolen merchandise or the return of such. It also enhances the penalties for boosters and fencers. It increases the minimum aggregate amount for felony theft and increases the ease of arrest for and prosecution of trespass and burglary for the repeat offenders who contribute to consistent inventory loss and employee morale. In the end, they had a bill that gives law enforcement the tools to recognize the human victims of organized retail crime.
Advice for Other State’s ORC Bills
“Don’t rush it,” Commander Anderson said upon me asking for tips for other state groups creating an ORC bill. “While the length of time it took was frustrating at the time, it allowed us to refine our language.”
Commander Anderson also suggests learning from others and reaching out to anybody that has worked to get an ORC law passed in any state. “Read the bill, digest it, and try to poke some holes in it to see if you can come up with a better one,” he says. Look at who the co-sponsors were, he continues. “Was it part of an omnibus package or was it a standalone? Did it result in a statewide task force or new statutory language?” And then look at the implementation of any previous bills.
“I think that we ended up with a really, really good bill, the best one in the country.” But true to his word, Commander Anderson challenges you to make a better one. “I’d love to be proven that we don’t have the best one in the country because someone else has learned from what we have.”
Implementation is the next phase for Minnesota; we are only just starting to see how law enforcement, judges, and prosecutors apply the new law. “There is a dearth of knowledge by law enforcement, by prosecutors, and by judges about this problem,” Commander Anderson relays. “We can’t rest on our laurels even with this new ORC bill passed.
“We as an industry need to constantly tell the story about why this matters.”
We need to tell the story of how this is not just a corporate victim. A story we now have help telling in our stores, to the prosecutors, and in court thanks to the hard work of Commander Anderson and his group.