October 18, 2022
District Attorney, San Diego County
Executive Vice President, Chief Policy Officer, and Head of Strategic Advocacy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Across the country, small and large businesses alike have seen an uptick in organized retail crime throughout their local communities. In 2020, organized retail crime cost more than $700,000 per every $1 billion in sales — a more than 50% increase compared to the previous five years. Additionally, according to new data from the Chamber, 56% of small retail businesses say they have experienced theft in the past year, and 46% have been forced to increase prices due to shoplifting.
In 2022, business owners are calling for policymakers to take action to stop the lawlessness. To that end, Neil Bradley, the Executive Vice President, Chief Policy Officer, and Head of Strategic Advocacy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spoke with Summer Stephan, the District Attorney of San Diego County in California. Stephan is also Vice President of the National District Attorney's Association. The pair discussed the ways organized retail theft and crime can be combated across the country, both from the local and national levels.
Fighting Back Requires Understanding Those Responsible for Retail Crimes
Speaking to how widespread the retail crime issue is across the United States, Stephan addressed that the criminals being dealt with are not one-off offenders; rather, they are repeat offenders who are returning often.
“We're dealing with organized criminals that are ripping off stores and terrorizing these businesses and communities,” Stephan said. “The only way to attack it is by being even more organized than they are … What we brought to this fight is having a dedicated team of a prosecutor that's experienced [and] knows how to put together big cases, and [an] investigator.”
However, Stephan is concerned that cases aren’t being dealt with properly nationwide.
“They're dealing with each case as a one-off when this is an organized crime trend,” Stephan said. “You have to meet the moment by changing our laws and changing the way that we enforce and prosecute these cases.”
Additional Changes Need to Be Made in Law to Stop Retail Crime
In looking at the changes necessary to make an impact in stopping retail crime, Stephan explains the importance of being able to aggregate.
“Most states changed their laws so that most thefts are misdemeanors,” Stephan said. “There's no aggregation where you're able to put a case together in one store [and] the next store [to] add the amounts together [and] show that this is really an organized crime activity and also [to] be able to prosecute cases from other jurisdictions and contiguous counties in one county.”
While regulations have been put in place for pawn shops to track thieves who bring in stolen products, Stephan believes new marketplaces on social media — which don’t keep records of the sellers — are in need of regulation too.
“We have all these protections for the small pawn shops so that law enforcement can do our job and track stolen goods, but we don't have those same protections online,” Stephan said. “[This] is what's allowing this business — this criminal industry — to increase and become bigger and bigger to the tune of millions, if not billions, of dollars that are being lost. And that cost is passed on to customers.”
Lack of Laws Against Retail Crime Embolden Thieves
Stephan noted that the lack of action has led to businesses suffering.
“Violence is becoming more the norm now,” Stephan said. “Recently, an employee was murdered when he tried to intervene. We had a female security guard recently that was punched in the face. This is commonplace. The violence is coming with these thefts, which we knew would happen.”
Stephan emphasizes that while these crimes may seem like isolated events, they impact entire communities.
“People shouldn't think of this as a victimless crime — that's the problem,” Stephan said. “That's such a way to lull us into a sense of just giving up. This is not a victimless crime.”
“There are victims,” she continued. “Not just the store owners, but the employees that depend on that job, the customers, and not to mention, that sense of safety in the community [and] the perception that you can go in a store and feel comfortable. Where there is no safety, nothing can thrive.”