Senior Vice President, State and Local Policy
January 23, 2024
Communities and businesses large and small across the United States are struggling to stay afloat amid an historic wave of retail crime. Retail crime incidents are increasingly turning violent, with innocent customers, employees, and business owners bearing the financial and societal costs: Retail crime creates higher prices for consumers, results in stores having to close their doors, and communities left without vital goods and services.
Last September, we spoke to the owner of a small-batch coffee roaster in San Francisco whose coffee shop has survived a half-century—but may not survive this current crime wave. Across the country, stories just like that abound. No business should ever have to close because of crime.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has focused intensely on addressing retail crime since defining it as a national crisis in a letter to Congress in March 2022. In the Chamber’s Crime Risk to Business report, we provide an overview of current federal, state, and local laws aiming to tackle retail crime. And we provide an analysis of innovative solutions businesses are pursuing to secure their stores, employees and customers.
The Chamber recommends three key steps communities should take to combat retail crime:
Coordinate resources among business and law enforcement
One of the greatest challenges in fighting retail crime is uniting the broad range of businesses and the multiple layers of government that make up our communities. Sophisticated criminal organizations have a single goal of hitting the weakest link in a community repeatedly to avoid detection and maximize profits. Vital information on criminal activity and resources to combat it are often siloed and not disseminated between businesses, law enforcement, and policymakers.
To effectively fight rampant crime, local businesses must coordinate and share information on criminal strikes to discern trends and effective responses. This coordination can occur under the umbrella of a local chamber of commerce like the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce’s Organized Retail Crime Association or the Ohio Chamber’s Crime Task Force. Gathering local businesses, law enforcement, and policymakers in one setting dedicated to confronting crime fosters shared solutions that can increase community detection and quicken response efforts.
Aggregate offenses to punish repeat offenders
The criminal gangs targeting our businesses are shrewd, exploiting the laws of a given jurisdiction to maximize their thefts and minimize their chances for arrest and prosecution. Thieves accomplish this by repeatedly stealing just below the felony threshold during each theft, with multiple thefts often committed across jurisdictional lines and often against the same stores again and again. Prosecutors like San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan have advised that state laws be changed to create a separate offense for the repeated stealing of certain amounts within specific time periods. By allowing for the aggregation of offenses against criminals, we can reduce the repeated store-by-store thefts plaguing our communities and driving businesses to close their doors.
Prosecute aggressively to combat lawlessness
Crucial to any anti-crime response is the local prosecutor. District Attorneys and County Attorneys are the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, deciding whether arrested parties will be prosecuted. Lax prosecution of crimes against businesses sends the wrong message to business owners and communities, and only emboldens criminals. The business community should support legislation reducing the case backlog for state and local courts, thereby freeing up prosecutors’ ability to address current crimes.
Crimes spanning multiple jurisdictions pose a logistical and manpower problem for prosecutors, but progress is underway. State legislatures should follow the lead of Pennsylvania, where a new law supported by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce creates a new office of Deputy Attorney General for Organized Retail Crime Theft. States should also empower attorney generals and special prosecutors to assist in complex, multijurisdictional cases to send a strong statewide message against retail crime.
Sophisticated criminal gangs look for legal loopholes to exploit to continue repeated thefts in our communities. Policy leaders and business groups must act to coordinate resources, update laws, and demand increased prosecution of crimes against businesses.
By taking these three key steps to combat retail crime, communities can stem the tide of rising crime in 2024 and better protect their businesses.
More on Retail Crime
About the authors
Tom Wickham, former Parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives, serves as senior vice president of State & Local Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Wickham leads the Chamber’s new division that monitors state and local policy developments and coordinates state and local policy advocacy strategies within the existing Chamber framework.