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Prioritizing People’s Safety Amidst Organized Retail Crime

Beyond debate over definitions and dollars lost is the lived experience of customers and store workers being victimized in violent store takeovers and enduring unprecedented intimidation by professional criminals targeting retail establishments. Indeed, high-level dissection over whether a particular loss would best be categorized as organized retail crime (ORC), shoplifting, or robbery—and what precise amount it all adds up to—both misses the point and the primary concern of retailers, which is that the well-being and safety of shoppers and associates is too often put at risk.

Amid the surge in coordinated smash-and-grab attacks on retailers this winter, Eric Orozco, the owner of Heart of Gold jewelry store inside a San Jose, California shopping center, shuttered his shop for a week out of fear that his store could be targeted. The day after he reopened his doors, thieves hit.

At 3:30 in the afternoon on a Monday in January, between eight to ten people armed with sledgehammers stormed the shopping center. “These individuals actually forced their way into the store,” police officer Steve Aponte told a local NBC affiliate. “And by saying ‘takeover robbery,’ they demanded everybody get on the ground. They forced people who were present, including staff members, to do their will. And in doing so, they were able to take over, break the glass, and take away the stuff that they wanted to take.”

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Three vendors were hit, and approximately $100,000 worth of goods was stolen, but the real damage was in human terms, Orozco told Fox News. “My dad was injured and… that really broke my heart to see. I mean, had the pressure been a little bit harder on his head, he could have died. So, these guys came in and threatened lives.”

“They heard the men say, ‘Close the doors, get everything inside!’ And that’s when we started screaming,” said Rocio Gomez of Joyeria Guerrero, another jewelry vendor targeted in the attack.

Stores in large cities have endured the lion’s share of the trouble lately, including the coordinated attack on a San Francisco-area Nordstrom in November that involved more than eighty thieves, and areas not accustomed to such violent crime are suffering too. Beverly Hills has seen repeat victimizations; stores in tony beach towns like Carmel-by-the-Sea have been hit; about thirty thieves ransacked a Best Buy in Burnsville, Minnesota; and on and on.

As it’s become fashionable to accuse big retail of being imprecise on the extent of ORC losses, it’s the human stories of frontline workers that get lost, but which are driving retailers’ response to the crime surge and the industry’s demand for change. For them, protecting products is important, but people are the priority.

“You can see [the] pressure in our financials and more importantly, frankly, you can see that pressure on our associates,” said Best Buy CEO Corrie Barry in a quarterly conference call. “This is traumatizing for our associates, and it is unacceptable. We are doing everything we can to try to create as safe as possible environments.”

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Efforts to cast doubt on whether the ORC problem has truly worsened ignores what those on the frontline say they’re witnessing and experiencing.

Brian Neimeyer

Brian Neimeyer, head of retail at Allied Universal, said robberies and flash mob events aren’t new, but that ORC has reached “a scale, boldness, and aggressiveness that was not generally evident in the pre-COVID era.” Despite pandemic restrictions reducing shopping mall traffic in 2021, for example, criminal incidents in them increased over the average level for recent years, he told LP Magazine.

Additive to the problem that professional thieves present are well coordinated attacks that aren’t entirely professional, highlighted in the Walnut Creek Nordstrom attack in which twenty vehicles were used to deliver the stream of offenders and to cart away merchandise. “It wasn’t professional, and by that, I mean the main players in this group enlisted a lot of juveniles,” explained Jeff Blunk, MCJ, senior manager of investigations for Nordstrom, in an ORCAs in Action virtual event in January. “It wasn’t a professional smash-and-grab that we would see in the early morning or late night hours or one with a handful of people. They gathered as many people as they could, caused as much disruption as they could, and got as much product as they could,” he said, noting that the investigation later revealed that participants earned a flat fee per item for their effort.

Jeff Blunk

CVS Health is among the retailers reporting safety challenges associated with growth in ORC. External thefts involving violence have doubled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ben Dugan, director of ORC and corporate investigations at CVS Health, during an industry webinar in November 2021 titled “Targets, Trends, and Threats in ORC.”

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Auror, a retail crime intelligence platform used by retailers, has seen serious incidents such as robberies and assaults double in 2021, according to Phil Thomson, the company’s co-CEO. Repeat offenders and ORC groups accounted for a substantial proportion of the violence, he said, noting that these habitual offenders are five times more likely to be violent or aggressive toward retail team members and customers.

Retail work is dangerous relative to other jobs for no other reason than external violence. In a December research note, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that external attacks are the leading cause of death among convenience store workers and its latest data from 2019 showed that these retail workers had a fourteen times higher rate of deaths due to work‑related violence than in private industry overall—6.8 homicides per 100,000 workers vs. 0.48 per 100,000 workers.

Changes in retail operations have also increased the risk of harm from criminal activity. Stores that may have previously closed for the night might now have 100 employees filling orders 24/7, transforming the threat of an overnight burglary into a significant safety risk for workers.

Retailers’ concern is widespread, according to the 2021 Retail Security Survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF). In it, retailers reported that gangs are more aggressive and violent than in years past, with 65 percent reporting an increase in violence among ORC gangs and 37 percent believing they were “much more aggressive” than in the past. For comparison, in 2019, only 57 percent said ORC gangs were more aggressive with 31 percent saying they were much more aggressive.

Despite some high-profile politicians and media personalities trying to cast doubt on the industry’s perspective, proof of the safety risks that customers and shoppers face from retail theft is littered across YouTube, such as the video from a Nordstrom in Southern California where thieves assaulted staff with bear spray.

There are also videos of thieves filling bags with merchandise with impunity—glaring intimidatingly at store workers as they fill up. “We’re all concerned a bit by how much bolder the bad guy is,” Mark Stinde, MBA, LPC, former vice president of asset protection at Kroger told LP Magazine in 2021, a point echoed by Dan Reynolds at 3SI Security Systems. “They walk out with an attitude of ‘just try to stop me.’ It’s amazing how blatant violent criminals have become,” Reynolds said.

While such threatening incidents are unlikely to ever show up in a public database as an act of violence, they certainly are—and the impact they have on the physiological well-being of associates is substantial and routinely reflected in postings on retail workers’ message boards.

Eric Harkins

It’s impacting the ability of retail stores to manage today’s labor market churn, according to Eric Hawkins, president of GKG Search & Consulting, a talent acquisition and retention firm. He told LP Magazine that young workers more than ever want to feel that they work in a “cool” place, and “part of being proud of the place you work is likely feeling safe and secure when you’re at work.”

“Outside of the financial losses, the aspect we are most concerned about is the confidence of our team, whether or not they’re safe at work, and what our stores look and feel like,” said Nordstrom’s Jeff Blunk. When major attacks happen, “it’s more than a security incident. It’s an overall organizational incident.”

Customer Concerns

Unease among customers has grown as well, suggests a NewsNation poll conducted in December 2021. In it, 48 percent said they felt “less safe” shopping in person in the current environment. Importantly, even among individuals who said they had not heard about holiday flash-rob events, 34.4 percent reported feeling less safe shopping in person this past holiday.

During the mass theft events this winter, gangs of thieves did not specifically target shoppers, but they weren’t allowed to get in their way, either. Injuries to shoppers occurred, often from being trampled as people ran for safety.

Not surprisingly, the public exhibits stanch support for stricter laws and tougher sentencing guidelines around store theft, with 62.7 percent expressing the view that they are currently “too soft” compared to just 9 percent who said they are “too strong,” according to the NewsNation poll.

The public also expressed the view that theft gangs should be treated as violent offenders, with 79.1 percent believing that suspects in smash-and‑grab retail thefts should not be released without bail while awaiting trial.

When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot suggested that retailers themselves were to blame for not doing more to make safety a priority, she was mostly met with derision. The scale of the attacks and their randomness were a plain rebuttable and experts pointed to the hundreds of millions that retailers spend annually on security.

Indeed, store safety had grown as a priority before 2021 holiday smash-and-grabs shined a fresh light on ORC. In the 2021 NRF survey, 82 percent of retailers reported that store violence had grown as a priority for their organization in the last five years. “LP professionals and retailers have brought attention to the continuing increase in ORC, cybercrimes, and shootings and other violent incidents in malls and stores,” the survey report noted. “They continue to invest in multiple resources. Half of respondents said their organization was adding technology resources and capital. And, compared with last year, there is more of a focus on hiring additional personnel.”

According to the CDC, following the tenets of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) remains a primary tool for reducing safety risks. Retail establishments that implement CPTED programs experience a 61 percent decrease in non-fatal injuries from external violence, according to its December 2021 research brief.

Because ORC has associated safety risks, all measures to curb ORC are by their nature safety investments, but some more directly relate to the goal of violence prevention than others. Because robbery and frontal attacks on stores are largely impossible to prevent, educating employees how to stay safe when attacks happen is foundational to retailers’ safety strategy.

Steve Walker

“We want to make sure our team members come out of the robbery safe, everything else can be replaced,” said Steve Walker, LPC, CPht, lead director of major crimes for Walgreens AP solutions, during the ORCAs in Action event. The company utilizes 185 professionals in the field that interact with stores and teach and train every day on de‑escalation and how to navigate a robbery and avoid engagement, so they aren’t put at risk. “We have training that comes up twice every year,” he said.

Steve Fahey

Training and support are the focus of Nordstrom’s safety approach. “We’ve increased the frequency of [training], and role‑playing critical incidents I think has helped,” said Steve Fahey, Nordstrom’s vice president of asset protection. “We also have an emergency readiness app that takes you through critical situations and how to respond.”

But even with all the continued investment, there are limitations to what retailers can do. People shouldn’t have to wonder if loved ones are going to be safe at work because they work in a retail store, said Jeff Blunk, “Yet, that’s kind of where people are at. People are questioning whether or not they’re safe at work.”

Retailers are doing what they can—fortifying buildings, improving staffing, enhancing skill sets and resources—but the events of the past holiday season still happened, said Blunk. “We can only do so much. We need the support.”

Shifting Political Winds?

When a retailer is targeted by professional ORC gangs or attacked in a rush of eighty offenders, it is, naturally, a store problem. But with hundreds of shoppers put in harm’s way during these events, it’s more critically a community matter—impacting whether residents feel safe where they live, work, and spend their leisure time.

That the current state of retail crime is untenable from a public safety perspective is starting to be reflected in the nation’s political debates, where the issue of crime has started to move from election periphery to campaign centerpiece.

In New York City, Eric Adams rode an anti-crime message to the mayor’s office, and it is currently giving shape to the race in Los Angeles, where billionaire Rick Caruso believes a tough-on-crime position is his best path to office. Rather than promoting his real estate success, his campaign is promoting his tenure as president of the LA Police Commission, and Caruso launched his campaign by telling a reporter that voters are “scared” and “want the ability for their kids to walk to school and play in a park and not worry about homeless encampments around them and not worry about crime rising.”

The issue’s political weight is reflected at the state level as well, where California Gov. Gavin Newsome should be enjoying a honeymoon after beating a recall effort and announcing a historic budget surplus for 2022 but is instead faced with polls that show 54 percent of residents believe the state is headed in the wrong direction because of dissatisfaction with rising crime and concern for public safety.

In San Francisco, after the string of violent attacks on retail stores during the 2021 holiday shopping season pulled her off the sidelines, Mayor London Breed announced her intention to end the “reign of terror” with more aggressive law enforcement, tougher policies, and less tolerance for “all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”

Breed said in a television interview that progress starts by recognizing “what families are going through, what merchants are going through,” and expressed her view that changes in the city have reached a point where: “Something’s gotta give; something has to change. It’s not about a stance of being tough on crime or soft on crime—I couldn’t care less,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be hurt.”

Politicians are starting to react to the frustration of the public who want the ability to shop in safety and who may increasingly recognize a link between lax enforcement of “minor crimes” like shoplifting and very real safety concerns. Despite his focus on police and prison reform, Gov. Newsome responded to the violence during the holiday shopping season by saying, “the level of organized retail theft we are seeing is simply unacceptable.”

Nationwide, crime promises to be a central issue of the 2022 election, and strategists suggest that even strong advocates for police and criminal justice reform will need careful messaging to explain how safer communities can be achieved through alternative means.

San Francisco’s mayor has been advancing a message that seems focused on striking a balance between supporting a strong social safety net while still holding people accountable for bad behavior—a fine line that more politicians will likely need to walk in upcoming elections. “The challenge we’re running into is the behavior that leads to violence…and we have to deal with those things and not pretend that some sort of social service program is actually going to get rid of it,” she said. “Once these lines are crossed there has to be a level of accountability.”

Although some data points might suggest otherwise, voter perception generally is that public places are getting less safe—and they want to see laws enacted that aim to change that. A Berkeley IGS poll of Los Angeles voters, for example, found that 71 percent of voters say crime has increased in their area and there is wide support for rolling back Proposition 47, which voters passed in 2014 and reduced penalties for some property crime and raised felony thresholds for store theft. Support for amending Proposition 47 includes 61 percent of Latino voters, 71 percent of white moderates, and 89 percent of white conservatives, according to the poll.

A feedback loop between politicians and voters might drive public support even higher. “The public needs to know that there is a direct correlation between rampant serial theft and voters being duped by proponents of Proposition 47,” according to state assembly member Jim Cooper (D – Elk Grove), who sponsored a failed measure to overturn parts of Proposition 47 in 2020. “We are watching an epidemic of theft caused by Proposition 47 that over promised and under delivered, which has quite literally, turned California into the Wild Wild West.”

It’s a message that is gaining momentum and increasingly amplified by political candidates, giving rise to the hope of many that the national appetite is shifting away from laws that aim to de-populate prisons to laws that will also restore sanity and safety to a simple trip to the store.

This story is a part of LPM‘s Special ORC Issue. Download the full issue for free here. 

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