Drug addicts who were shoplifting to support their habits sparked a drive against organized retail crime that has precipitated a sharp drop in theft from retailers and related return fraud in Mentor, Ohio.
Mentor, about 20 miles northeast of Cleveland, is the sixth largest retail market in the state, with annual sales in excess of $1.5 billion, according to Ante Logarusic, director of community relations and marketing for the city. The city is home to the Great Lakes Mall as well as several freestanding stores and nationally branded restaurants clustered along Route 20, known locally as Mentor Avenue.
“A few years ago, we noticed a trend where shoplifting was going up,” says Patrolman James C. Collier of the Mentor Police Department. “When we were making arrests, [the suspects]were telling us they were addicts. A lot of them were on heroin.”
The shoplifters would steal merchandise, return it and get credit in the form of gift cards. If they sold the stolen goods on the street, they would get about 50 cents on the dollar value, Collier says. Gift cards, on the other hand, could be sold at pawn shops and “gold and silver” stores for significantly closer to their value.
Arresting officers frequently search suspects’ vehicles and often find contraband from other stores.
After noting that the police department’s retail theft deterrence program entered its fourth year at the start of 2018, Collier recalls its genesis. “What we did back then was to go undercover, using an unmarked car obtained through forfeiture,” he says. That meant mostly sitting in retailers’ parking lots keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior.
“In the first month, we had 14 arrests for shoplifting,” Collier notes.
Retailers were slow to notice the growing crime wave. They were naïve about the theft and retail scams, Collier says, primarily because Mentor is an affluent community and not a high crime area, so the retailers had little experience with such activity.
As effective as the police efforts were in combatting retail theft and fraud, it was also expensive for the department to implement. They sought assistance from Ohio’s Office of Criminal Justice Services.
“We didn’t have enough funds to supplement overtime,” Collier says, noting that the officers on the shoplifting detail were also used on regular patrol. With funds from the state, the Mentor Police Department could keep officers on shoplifting surveillance while other officers covered their regular patrol assignments on overtime.
The grant money has made a big difference, Collier says.
“We’ve long had a dialogue with retailers. If a shoplifter was arrested or stopped by a retailer loss prevention associate, the police were called after all the paperwork was completed,” he says. “Then, after we got the grant in 2015, we reached out, setting up meetings and compiling a mailing list. The large retailers and Great Lakes Mall security showed up. That was when we began developing a definitive strategy.”
Generating informative communications is a key part of the strategy.
“If an individual were arrested, we would issue a bulletin containing a photo, the individual’s name and circumstances of the arrest,” Collier says. “If the individual had been apprehended by an LP associate and/or he had prior convictions, that also goes into the bulletin. We get the bulletin to the retailers. This is an intelligence network for the stores.”
More than 100 such bulletins were distributed to retailers last year.
Collier says the local judiciary is on board with the anti-ORC efforts. He describes one judge as a person who “considers shoplifting a community killer,” and that he has a standard sentence for first-time offenders but warns, “if it happens again, you’ll be sent to jail.”
The Mentor theft deterrence program has shifted the approach to some crime-fighting tactics. Now, “We want [retailers]to call while there is shoplifting in progress,” Collier says. The officers in the parking lot can arrest the perpetrators after they leave the store but before they get into their vehicle.
“We feel it’s mutually beneficial. The officers are in our store all the time, working with our store personnel. It’s been a huge benefit for us and the community of Mentor.”
— Jonathan Mehn, Target
Collier says such arrests have increased while “after-the-fact” arrests have decreased. One result is that since thieves never make it to their car, there are fewer getaway pursuit chases which are dangerous for police and the public, not to mention the thieves themselves.
Interestingly, making arrests while the crime is in progress has not resulted in weapons being drawn nor have there been any hostage-takings in escape attempts, Collier says.
“These guys know that if they get caught shoplifting with a weapon on them, it’s robbery and they’re smart enough to want to avoid that,” he says.
Collier says arresting officers frequently search suspects’ vehicles and often find contraband from other stores. This is not surprising since over the years, officers on parking lot surveillance have learned that “suspicious activity” includes noting a car with two or more occupants that comes into the lot and parks away from other vehicles. After rustling around, one of the occupants emerges from the vehicle with a bag from a different store that appears to be full of items to be returned.
“People are stealing in other stores in other cities and returning them here,” Collier says. “That’s what the parking lot surveillance is about.”
In addition to the tweaks the police have made in their handling of theft deterrence incidents, “some of the stores have changed their policies on returns,” Collier says. “Some are now asking for IDs or tracking individuals with multiple returns. Sometimes there are limits of three returns within a certain time period. With more valuable merchandise, they won’t give a return without a valid receipt.”
Among the other changes the police have noticed since the inception of the program is the decline in arrests of heroin users and other addicts and an increase in stealing-for-profit and organized retail crime.
“Some of them had lists of contacts and were stealing to order,” Collier says. “State investigators got involved and uncovered a fencing operation in an adjacent county.”
Jonathan Mehn, Target’s asset protection manager for the greater Cleveland area, says he attends the quarterly meeting with the Mentor Police Department and loss prevention officials from 60 or so other retailers. “We feel it’s mutually beneficial,” Mehn says. “We appreciate what the Mentor police are doing. We are proud to be a part of the program. The officers are in our store all the time, working with our store personnel. It’s been a huge benefit for us and the community of Mentor.”
The city of Mentor, which provides 75 percent of the funding for the police department’s anti-ORC program, feels its money is being well spent, Logarusic says. “The city is pleased to see the level of cooperation that continues to grow between our retail partners and Mentor police.”
David P. Schulz has been writing for STORES since 1982 and is the author of several non-fiction books.