Sorting through retail theft fact and fiction in California

Fears of retail theft, heightened by viral videos that show masked thieves smashing and grabbing merchandise from stores throughout the country, have whipped up many in a frenzy and hand wringing. 

On Tuesday, members of the California Assembly’s Select Committee on Retail Theft held their first hearing on the subject, hoping to sift through fact and fiction. 

Data shows shoplifting has increased in some areas of California, but not all – especially in smaller cities. 

The Bay Area saw the highest number of reported shoplifting incidents in the state between 2019 and 2022, according to Magnus Lofstrom, policy director and senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. Commercial burglary also has risen, especially in Bay Area counties and coastal Southern California.

However, shoplifting dropped in counties with smaller populations.

Beginning with shoplifting, San Mateo had the highest rate in 2022, with 347 reported incidents per 100,000 residents, followed by San Francisco (333). These counties saw increases of 53% and 24% compared to 2019, the largest jumps of all 15 counties, according to research conducted by Lofstrom and his colleague, Brandon Martin. 

Three Central Valley counties had the next highest shoplifting rates: San Joaquin at 297, Kern with 278. and Fresno with 272,  the researchers found. 

Increases in Kern and Fresno relative to 2019 were relatively low (1% and 7%, respectively); the only other large counties with increases were Santa Clara with 14% and Alameda with 10%. 

Shoplifting decreased by 20% or more in five of the 15 counties: San Joaquin (25%), Orange (24%), San Diego (21%), Ventura (21%) and San Bernardino (20%).

Statewide, experts reported, shoplifting numbers remain below pre-pandemic levels, but commercial burglaries and robberies have steadily ticked up. 

Shoplifting is a misdemeanor with a punishment of up to six months in jail. District attorneys have the discretion to charge commercial burglary as either a misdemeanor or a felony. 

Lofstrom was just one of the speakers invited to give testimony on Capitol Hill. Experts, stakeholders, prosecutors and public defenders were invited to testify about the challenges facing store owners and employees.

Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) said lawmakers hear about rising retail theft almost daily.

"This is impacting our constituents," she said.

Jeff Kreshek, senior vice president and Western Region president of Federal Realty, said the topic of retail theft is regularly discussed in business calls. Retailers are considering moving locations or closing entirely because of theft.

"At the end of the day, this is a very real problem that is going to impact communities in substantial ways for decades, when these stores close, these communities will suffer for a long time," Kreshek said.

As retailers shared their horror stories and argued for stiffer criminal penalties, Margo George, with the California Public Defenders Association, testified that diversion — mental health treatment and housing — have made a difference in her clients’ lives. She also pointed to closing the market for stolen goods on online retailers as a solution.

The retail theft hearing in California came about a week after the National Retail Federation revised a report released in April that pulls back the claim that organized retail crime accounts for nearly half of overall industry shrink, which measures overall loss in inventory, including theft.

The trade association released the original report in partnership with K2, a financial crimes risk management firm. The report erroneously stated that of the $94.51 billion in so-called industry shrink, nearly half was to organized retail crime.

David Johnston, the national retail group’s vice president of asset protection and retail operations, told The Associated Press in an interview that the discrepancy was based on K2 referencing U.S. Senate testimony delivered in 2021 by Ben Dugan, who at the time was the president of a nonpartisan group called the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, or CLEAR. 

In testimony, Dugan said that organized retail crime accounted for $45 billion in annual losses for retailers and cited the coalition.

That amount was inaccurate, Johnston said.

It’s unclear how much money retailers broadly are losing due to organized retail crime — or if the problem has substantially increased.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.