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If acronyms could solve crimes, Mayor Eric Adams would be Sherlock Holmes. His administration’s latest plan to combat retail theft, aka shoplifting, is rife with catchy abbreviations that won’t catch anybody.
The press release describing the new program included acronyms such as “RESTORE,” which stands for “Re-Engaging Store Theft Offender and Retail Establishments,” and “PROP,” for the “Precision Repeat Offender Program,” and “INFORM” which stands for the federal “Integrity, Notification and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces,” to prevent the resale of stolen goods online. Including other clever sounding but meaningless phrases such as “works upstream to stop some of the factors leading to a crime before one takes place…” or “trains retail workers in de-escalation tactics,” doesn’t instill much confidence in me.
From what I’ve seen, most retail outlets have a strict policy not to engage shoplifters. My cousin, who worked at a major retailer, had the audacity to confront a shoplifter. Her reward was immediate termination. That’s how crazy things have gotten in the real world of retail.
During the press conference at which the mayor announced the new initiative, he was surrounded by a bevy of local and state officials who all agreed in lockstep that the program would go a long way to prevent theft. I am a bit skeptical, however. The show of support reminded me of the 51 intelligence officials who signed the document claiming the Hunter Biden laptop was Russian disinformation. The fact that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg praised the initiative gives me great concern, since he’s reluctant to prosecute cold blooded murderers. What are the real chances he’ll go after a shoplifter?
The fact is that shoplifters have been the bane of merchants ever since the Dutch opened the first dry goods stores in Lower Manhattan. In 1886, Thomas Byrnes, the city’s renowned chief of detectives, wrote a book called, “Professional Criminals of America.” He dedicated a full chapter to shoplifters. Interestingly enough, women were considered to be the most proficient shoplifters of his day and for good reason. Their cloaks and large hoop skirts with deep pockets sewn into the fabric allowed them to easily conceal any item in the deep recesses of what they were wearing.
Byrne detailed their crimes and methods and also published their mugshots in his book. Store owners rushed to purchase the tome since it provided them a means to identify shoplifters before they committed the larceny.
That’s how “works upstream” was employed 140 years ago. But I don’t think that’s what it means today. While the mugshots helped, Byrnes concluded the best way to prevent shoplifting was for stores to employ “intelligent and discriminating watchers and painstakingly investigate cases of shoplifting” so that the offenders could be appropriately punished.
When I was a rookie cop in the 17th Precinct, in the early 1980s, Alexander’s department store was located on East 58th Street and Lexington Avenue. It had a robust anti-theft program that practiced what Byrnes had preached. Alexander’s employed several seasoned undercover store detectives who were supervised by a renowned former NYPD chief of detectives, Al Seedman.
His plainclothes men and women apprehended so many shoplifters every single day that they had their own arrest processing room and affidavit program. The point is, the management of the retail establishment took the crime of shoplifting seriously and took steps to curtail it without relying on help from the government. Other stores throughout the city had similar programs. Sadly, subsequent decisions to abandon all efforts to thwart shoplifting and instead pass the cost of those massive losses on to customers has become the norm.
Adams cited statistics that claimed 327 repeat offenders were responsible for 30 percent of the retail crime in New York City. He did not say how many of those shoplifters were in jail or had ever been prosecuted. But we know these aren’t teenage girls stealing a tube of lipstick on a dare from a classmate. To start, all efforts should be focused on simply preventing the 327 recidivists from plying their trade. If that puts a measurable dent into shoplifting, other avenues of prevention can then be initiated. The program as it stands now is too big not to fail.
Bernard Whalen is a former NYPD lieutenant and co-author of “The NYPD’s First Fifty Years” and “Case Files of the NYPD.”
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