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Leaders order audit of Seattle's organized retail theft amid rise in crime

Over the last two years, downtown businesses have been hit especially hard by shoplifters.

SEATTLE — Editor's note: The above video on rising retail theft in western Washington originally aired December 21, 2021.

As rates of shoplifting and organized retail theft rise over the last year or so, especially in downtown Seattle, the city council has decided it's time to start looking for solutions.

The problem drove at least one local business out of downtown in recent months after Simply Seattle, a celebrated store selling sports merchandise from the past and present, closed its Pioneer Square location.

The owner at the time said it was “exhausting,” explaining how thieves would aggressively enter the store, grab merchandise and leave with no regard for staff. 

Now, the city’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee is requesting an audit to help find ways to enhance the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) retail theft program by taking a closer look at organized retail crime.

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The request followed a presentation on Tuesday by SPD’s Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey on the department’s Retail Theft Program.

Mahaffey explained the program, which has been around since 1989, allows a loss prevention officer or security guard at participating retail stores to file misdemeanor theft cases without an officer’s involvement. Over the last two years, though, the number of cases referred through the program has dropped despite an increase in theft.

“Speaking with the detective who runs a program currently attributes it to a trend throughout retail establishments to go hands-off, to not physically contact people regarding a shoplifting offense anymore,” Mahaffey explained. “This is done out of safety concerns for employees and also liability concerns, as well.”

The audit, ordered by council members Andrew Lewis and Lisa Herbold, will examine the state of organized retail crime in the city, look at strategies other jurisdictions are using to address the issues and develop ways the city might potentially better address these types of crime.

One of the city’s most recent major busts in organized shoplifting came in December when SPD arrested 35 people for stealing merchandise from the downtown Target store, a property frequently targeted by thieves.

However, these individuals, like many shoplifters, were released almost immediately and never booked into jail due to the low-level nature of their crime and COVID-19 restrictions in jails.

“We always have an aggravating factor along with that too. So, somebody being booked for the one-off shoplift, that wouldn’t be accurate based on the information I’m getting,” Mahaffey said.

Herbold said she plans to meet with members of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and the King County Prosecutor’s Office to look at how prosecutorial decisions are being made regarding thieves who are doing harm to the community versus those who are stealing out of necessity due to things like extreme poverty.

Currently, there are only 63 stores and chains signed up to participate in the Retail Theft Program. Herbold said she hopes to increase that number while also looking to make a distinction within the program between “retail theft for necessities or retail theft that is part of a more organized trafficking operation.”

A briefing on the retail theft audit is planned for the public safety committee before it considers the 2023 city budget.

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