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RILA’s Vibrant Communities Initiative: Working Together to Find Real and Lasting Solutions

Healthy communities are critical to our nation’s long-term resilience and sustainability. Unfortunately, the vibrancy of many of our communities continues to be threatened.

While issues such as crime, addiction, and the unhoused all contribuate to the ongoing dilemma, the underlying causes of these challenges are complex and multifaceted. Addressing the problems we face requires working toward sensible and durable solutions that attack core concerns in a meaningful way.

This is the mission of the Vibrant Communities Initiative. The program’s purpose is to address the safety concerns of employees and consumers by launching a partnership among relevant public and private stakeholders focused on identifying and tackling the issues that contribute to the increase in crime, violence, vagrancy, and blight in and around retail environments, business districts, and communities across the country.

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The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) and Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) have come together in a first-of-its-kind national partnership to combat retail crime, bringing together leading retailers and district attorneys’ offices from around the country to establish open lines of communication between prosecutors and retailers, identify common challenges, share information on repeat offenders, and work together to identify criminal networks targeting local retailers.

To learn more about the program, we sat down with Lisa LaBruno, Esq., senior executive vice president of retail operations and Jason Brewer, senior vice president of communications and marketing at RILA, to get their insights on the mission and vision of this important industry initiative.

LPM: Can you tell us more about the Vibrant Communities program?

Lisa LaBruno: The overarching theme is law enforcement, prosecutors, and retailers working together. Vibrant Communities are about all of us collaborating with a shared mission for the betterment of the community; industry-first partnerships all under one roof that will reduce unlawful activity in and around retail environments that threaten the vibrancy of these areas and the surrounding communities.

LPM: How did the program get started?

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LaBruno: Vibrant Communities really got its start at the first annual retail theft workshop that we held at Target’s corporate headquarters in June of 2022. Following constructive dialogue with the executive director at NDAA, RILA hosted the event with Target, inviting around twenty prosecutors. The energy that came out of the meeting was exceptional and the workshop proved to be a huge success. Not only did it open eyes and new channels of communication, but it also reinforced the learning curve that needed to happen to help set us on a positive and productive path. Once we announced the formal partnership between RILA and NDAA, it just turned into a springboard for everything that’s happened since.

We announced the NDAA partnership in August of 2022. However, in a short period of time we’ve already implemented store walks with prosecutors, launched Vibrant Communities, established a partnership with the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail (CLEAR) for the 2024 Asset Protection Conference, and launched virtual cohorts between prosecutors and retailers—six different cohorts where they meet virtually on a regular cadence to talk about persistent challenges and how they can solve for them. We’ve also founded a LinkedIn group for prosecutors and retailers. With so many activities going on, we’ve really been focused more on the work, but we also want to share the message regarding what’s happening and build additional momentum to support the partnerships that we’re building and the great work that’s being done.

LPM: What do you see as the overarching mission of Vibrant Communities?

LaBruno: We will work directly with law enforcement and prosecutors to drive down retail crime by testing approaches. For example, we have Julie Hibdon, a professor with the Southern Illinois University School of Law and an academic who’s been doing work in criminal justice for years. She’s been working with us on several projects as we assess the current state and test new approaches. We’re going to put these approaches to work and then test the after-stages to see if anything we did had an impact on retail crime.

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We’re piloting the program in the Seattle market. To have the King County prosecutor’s office, Seattle PD, ten other King County law enforcement agencies, retailers, diversion programs, and social service organizations all working together under one roof was amazing and truly groundbreaking. We see retailers and law enforcement working together all the time. We have seen RILA retailers and prosecutors together for the last eighteen months. Now we’re sort of marrying the two, which puts the work on steroids. You can’t have an impact unless each stakeholder is at the table. We must all work together to make the progress that drives change and influences results.

LPM: What direction would you like to see the program take? How would you like to see it move forward?

LaBruno: With the Vibrant Communities initiative, the overarching objective, other than reducing retail crime, is to reduce recidivism among high-impact offenders. Roughly 80 percent of retail crime is committed by 20 percent of the offenders. We’re not boiling the ocean—we’re focused on that 20 percent of high-end offenders. If we can reduce the recidivism of that 20 percent, look at the impact that we can have on retail crime.

To reduce recidivism, you’ve got to have a “tough on crime” component. For some of those involved, the only way to stop their criminal activity is if they go to jail. And while I understand the counterpoint that there’s no room in jails today, we’ve got to find room in the jails for those career criminals who simply won’t change their behavior otherwise. Without the threat of real and significant consequences, there is no incentive for this group to stop what they’re doing.

However, there must also be a significant social service component to the program. Some of these high-impact offenders have severe drug addiction problems, suffer from mental health issues, they’re unhoused, or have other issues that influence their behavior. Is it really constructive to put these offenders in jail in the long term? It may provide a short-term reprieve, but they will only be in jail for twenty-four hours. These individuals need a different kind of intervention. I mean, I was a prosecutor, and probably one of the more hardcore prosecutors. But if you look at this intellectually and take your emotions out of it, it doesn’t make any sense to put those people in jail. If you do, you’re not reducing the likelihood of recidivism because they’re not going away for any significant period of time.

The program is a process, evolving based on what we do, what we learn, and the successes that unfold. We’re going to test some strategies that we’re already starting to vet. We will glean learnings from what we’re doing on a regular cadence, and as we’re gleaning those learnings, we want to replicate those plans in communities across the country through our partnership with the NDAA and CLEAR. It can’t just be retailers; it has to be a shared effort. We need prosecutors and law enforcement to be able to replicate things in communities across the country to bring it all together.

We’re not simply trying to solve the problems in King County, Washington, and Yolo County, California. The key to the Vibrant Communities initiative is to learn from the challenges that they’re experiencing in those communities, find solutions, and bring those solutions to other communities across the country. It’s a 50-state problem, and it’s these partnerships that allow the learning to take place.

What we’ve seen thus far has been amazing. Both those meetings kicked off with prosecutors saying, “We’re in this, we’re committed. We know we’re not perfect, but let’s work together and figure something out.”

Jason Brewer: The issues plaguing retailers and our communities today are real and require genuine solutions. Our mission over the last several years has been to go at this problem in any and every direction possible.

Addressing the ease of selling stolen goods online was a starting point. That was the one area where we thought we could make a difference in a fairly reasonable time frame, bringing more awareness and transparency to online problems and how they impact our businesses and communities. We passed the INFORM Act and are still working with attorneys general across the country to ensure it’s enforced.

But it’s a multitiered problem, so our approach has been “Go at this issue from every conceivable angle,” with the approach that there is no bad idea; we work best when we work together and keep moving forward whenever and wherever we can. Transparency and accountability online, getting states to fund task forces, building relationships with local prosecutors through store walks and webinars, sharing cases, building effective working groups that can communicate virtually and in real-time. We’re going at it from every angle we can conceivably go at because we know we have to if we’re going to make a difference.

Vibrant Communities is testing very granular aspects of recidivism and diversion and going after the truly violent habitual offenders. This is critical to the health of our businesses and the safety of our communities.

LPM: What exactly are the types of things you’re doing with the DAs and law enforcement?

LaBruno: We have a formal partnership with the National District Attorney’s Association. Through that partnership, we are advancing various projects.

For example, September was Store Walk Month—and it was so popular that it extended throughout the fall. The Home Depot hosted a technology walk with Woltanoma County [Portland area] DA’s office, which originally prompted the store walk program. This led to us connecting with more than eighty district attorneys’ offices nationwide with RILA member companies to host walks. They are completing post-walk surveys where they are sharing with us what they’ve learned, whether or not they would be willing to participate again at another time, how they felt we improved the program, and keeping the lines of communication open. The feedback from those walks has been just fabulous from both the DAs and the retailers because now it’s their opportunity to build the relationships. Retailers are putting all kinds of emerging tech in their stores. That technology creates a paper trail of evidence and prosecutors need to know that. They need to know what evidence is available to them, that the evidence is being preserved to successfully prosecute the cases that warrant aggressive prosecution and are put forth in such a way to aggressively take action. It’s been a phenomenal learning opportunity for both stakeholders.

We’ve held six webinars where we showcased the Seattle city attorney’s high utilizer program as well as the Philadelphia and San Diego DA offices’ retail theft programs. We established six cohorts comprised of retailers and prosecutors, all of whom attended the second annual retail theft platform at our conference last spring. That Sunday, we kicked off with the workshop, doubled the number of prosecutors that had attended the previous year, and at the end of that workshop, there was a yearning to continue the dialogue. That’s where the idea of creating the cohorts came into play so that we could continue speaking to each other throughout the course of the year and it will culminate with us all coming together again at the retail AP conference.

We launched a LinkedIn group and a Retail Crime Advisory Board comprised of five DAs, chaired by Ashlie Shanley, Cabarrus County, North Carolina district attorney, and five retailers. The board meets quarterly to discuss the activities and work we need to prioritize. Vibrant Communities is the overarching mission between RILA and NDAA, with all these other activities being part of that broader partnership.

Big problems require bold initiatives. There are a lot of stakeholders and it’s important that we work together to deal with all the challenges that we’re facing. The project may be aspirational, but sometimes it takes boldness and courage to accomplish all that needs to be done.

LPM: What are some things retailers can do better to help move the program forward?

LaBruno: Generally speaking, we need to improve our report writing, to include reporting details and narratives that tell the whole story. There needs to be better complete information on the evidence collected, focused videos that point to the actual events, and appropriate training for non-LP people who may be responsible for completing these reports. Crime data needs to align with what is happening in the stores, and even in those instances where police don’t respond, we need to provide accurate details of what’s happening in the stores and document the events. In other words, how can we show it’s happening if we don’t write it down? We need crime data that aligns more with what is happening out there so we can affect change—including public policy.

We can do many things that may appear minor on the surface that can make a significant difference to the success of these initiatives—contact lists, effective channels of communication, and efficient information sharing. In fact, the premise of Vibrant Communities is information sharing. To accomplish that, all of the retailers need to be putting their information into the same place. This needs to be a joint effort to make it successful, and we believe we’re on the right path to make it happen.

Brewer: This truly is an industry-wide initiative that has the support of both our retailers and our communities. In fact, retail CEOs are individually involved and asking for this. They’ve given a clear directive to get on this and are supporting the initiative. We’re extremely excited about what we’ve accomplished thus far and even more enthusiastic about what we can accomplish moving forward.

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