Alarmed over the scale of alcohol thefts from grocery stores, a group representing Washington state's police chiefs and sheriffs has been pushing quietly for changes in how retailers police liquor on their shelves.
Representatives of the grocery industry and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) have been meeting for almost a year, KING 5 has learned, but the two sides have not agreed on firm steps the stores should be taking to help clamp down on liquor theft.
Lacking agreement, WASPC is now working with an influential state lawmaker to write legislation that would force grocers to reveal just how much liquor they are losing to thieves.
"The sheriffs and police chiefs are very unhappy right now," said state Rep. Christopher Hurst (D-Enumclaw), head of a committee that oversees Washington liquor laws. "The chiefs want to know what the loss rate is in individual stores, and they want that information shared with the public."
Hurst's bill, which has not been written yet, could possibly require the grocery industry to release liquor theft information to police and post it online so the public can see how good their local stores are doing at stopping thefts.
KING 5 reported last month that the grocery industry is using its own investigators to help build cases against organized liquor theft rings. Arrests made at a West Seattle restaurant in September were the direct result of grocery store investigators working directly with the King County Sheriff's Office to bust one specific ring.
But WASPC members say too much stolen liquor is finding its way into the hands of minors or is fueling profits for organized crime.
"Part of our hunch is coming from store managers," said King County Sheriff John Urquhart, who has been involved in the talks between WASPC and the industry. Urquhart said "store managers ... are taking our deputies -- or in some cases chiefs -- aside and saying, 'I have a huge problem here and I need your help because I'm not getting corporate help.'"
Police say they need more information from the grocery industry to better understand the scale of the liquor theft problem and which stores are targeted most by thieves.
"We need to be able to know where we should target our relatively limited resources so we can combat that," said Urquhart. "We certainly can't put a deputy in front of every establishment that sells hard liquor."
Rep. Hurst said legislation would also help hold liquor retailers accountable. "I think the intent is either to have them change their behavior or have their liquor license revoked in some cases," he said.
Hurst said he did his own informal investigation after being approached by WASPC. Armed with his own camera, he visited stores in his district that sell liquor, finding some locations that carefully supervised their liquor inventory to ones where liquor was placed in easily accessible places next to regular food items.
"I think most of the stores have done pretty good job, but we have some left that it's a nightmare," Hurst said.
In one store, Hurst said he spotted alcohol displayed with candy and stuffed animals near the establishment's front door. Few bottles at that store were capped with special security devices.
"What does that tell someone? Don't steal this bottle but go ahead and steal these -- seriously," Hurst said.
Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, was not available to appear on camera. But Gilliam said the industry has been responsive to most of the police chiefs' requests because businesses are also committed to solving the theft problem. But he said no business wants to hand over data on thefts -- information that could be valuable to competitors. In the meantime, Gilliam said the industry wants to continue talks with WASPC.
Urquhart hinted at how serious he and other law enforcement officials are taking the problem: "This is a social issue, as well. People are dying from stolen liquor."