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Can Canines Curb Crime? This NYC Experiment Is Counting on it

A drug store across the street from Madison Square Garden in Midtown Manhattan is the site of an experiment being tested as a possible solution to the city’s and nation’s shoplifting epidemic.

Nowhere is New York’s shoplifting problem more prevalent than at the city’s many CVS and Walgreens locations where many more popular—not just premium—items are now kept under locks. Customers must push a button and wait for a staff member to assist them.

Even if this practice reduces overall shrink, the additional manpower required to service annoyed customers simply trying to buy fingernail clippers or deodorant, hurts loyalty and drains the bottom line.

So, why not try putting a German Shepherd outside the front door instead?

“We wanted to be a little proactive,” Kevin Ward, vice president of the 34th Street Partnership, a nonprofit that represents the interests of neighborhood businesses, told Sourcing Journal. “We thought a canine outside would be effective with one of our security officers inside the door. And since we started it, we stopped 27 shoplifting incidents and I think we deterred more than that. Because people see the security, see the dog, and they just don’t come in and they don’t want to attempt to shoplift.”

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To launch the idea, Ward reached out to Stapleton Security Services, founded by a fellow retired NYPD cop, Michael Stapleton. Headquartered in Massapequa, on Long Island, Stapleton Security trains dogs at an 11-acre facility in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

Drako, a Czechoslovakian Shepherd on the street near Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan. Courtesy of 34th Street Partnership

Drako, a Czechoslovakian Shepherd; Emir, a Belgian Malinois, and Del, a German Shepherd are part of Stapleton’s elite Patrol K9 Teams.

“We had no intention of getting involved with this type of work four years ago. The main reason we are providing our clients with ‘patrol’ dogs is they asked us for a resource that can help mitigate the enormous increase in theft and crime within their brick-and-mortar locations,” said Paul Stapleton, of Stapleton Security Services, and the son of its founder. “The few Patrol K9 Teams we have deployed have been extremely successful in decreasing theft and minimizing crime within our client’s footprint.”

The Partnership shared four accounts of the more than 25 successful interceptions. All four involved management inside alerting the dog’s handler outside, who in turn, confronted the suspects and convinced them to pay for the goods or to return them. Two of the four were described as “homeless.”

“I think a lot of it is when you see a dog and you see uniform security, I think if deters people,” Ward said. “People look at it and say the chance of being apprehended a stop is so much greater here, I’m going to go somewhere else.”

It’s that deterrence that, according to John Hassard, loss prevention and security expert with Robson Forensic, is the best outcome any business can hope for.

“A retailer probably can’t make a thief ‘not steal’ but a retailer can make it harder to steal in this store than the store down the street,” Hassard said. “There’s a kind of motto in loss prevention that ‘if you’ve got a shoplifting problem, you can’t apprehend your way out of a shoplifting problem.’ If it’s a problem that big, you have to focus on deterrence.”

But as a former police officer, Ward pushes back on the idea of passive tactics being superior to, or a replacement for, the long arm of the law.

“I tend to disagree. I think law enforcement would be a great deterrent,” Ward said. “If people were arrested and prosecuted for this, you would see a drop, but right now, there are no penalties; there are not consequences for their activity, so you’re gonna get more of it. I think a little enforcement and prosecution, especially for people who are chronic recidivists—you have people who’ve been arrested 40-50 times for shoplifting, the only way you’re going to deter them is by some sort of prosecution.”

Ward said the Partnership has been overwhelmed by shoplifting complaints in recent years, which he attributes directly to a decrease in police manpower. Part of the Partnership’s charter is to patrol the neighborhood itself without any law enforcement authority.

“Staffing in the precinct is down 40 percent and, historically, crime is up 200 percent over the last two years,” Ward said. “So there’s a correlation between the two and we’re trying to fill that gap as best we can.”

But Hassard counters that even with more police on the streets, meeting the bar for approaching and calling for the arrest of a shoplifter is high.

“Most store policies say a cashier is not able to stop stealing; a manager may, if authorized, but can only stop them if they’ve met the following five-step or six-step criteria,” Hassard said. “You have to see them without the product, then see them take the product, then see them conceal, then see them leave the store without purchase and when you stop them you have to be able to ID…that’s still on their person. So if you’ve seen all of those and you are authorized, you can make an apprehension. In this case, if a guy in the store authorized the apprehension, you might need some help outside from the guy with the big dog.”

The dogs of course, are not experts—olfactory or otherwise—in the signs of shoplifting and in all four case samples the Partnership shared, the call came from inside the store and the dog was ultimately only there for the benefit of security theater.

Del, a German Shepherd patrolling outside of a CVS in Midtown Manhattan. Courtesy 34th Street Partnership.

“This isn’t the type of tool that would be effective in stopping a typical shoplifter. They’re not trying to be observed, stashing stuff in their coat or purse and leaving with it, so it isn’t an effective tool for that, but retail crime, violent crime—it’s a deterrent,” Hassard said. “The homeless are kind of a hot-button issue, so to speak. Many of them don’t care; they walk out and it’s hands-off [from the staff]. It’s a good tool for stuff like that.”

Hassard, a 30-year veteran of loss prevention, said he worked some with dogs at a Macy’s store in the 1990s.

“But that was more for crowd controls, overnight patrols, escorted cash pickups—not a shoplifting kind of thing,” he said.

Ward said the Partnership’s constituency of businesses and board have been supportive of the effort, so far.

“Mostly everybody has been very positive and favorable,” Ward said. “And I think the store employees really appreciate it—the cashiers and managers; they’ve seen a noticeable difference in the conduct of patrons and reduction in shoplifting.”

But if shoplifting in its many new forms continues to grow, retailers from drug stores to department stores to fashion outlets might be inclined to try just about anything to fight back against the shrink.

“I think all retail has been hit. I think drugstores are on the frontline because of what they sell,” Ward said. “Cosmetic schools have also things that are typically taken off the shelves put into a bag and resold. And then we have this some high-end theft in downtown and Chelsea, up on Madison Avenue, where they do the smash-and-grab, where they come run out with $20,000 to $50,000 worth of merchandise within a minute. So there’s all different levels of theft. And obviously, the drugstores are the the bottom level where it’s easy pickings.” 

Ward said he hasn’t heard from other New York neighborhood partnerships, or from other cities about the project, but that’s likely to change as media coverage of the trial grows awareness.

“I think they would say it’s very cost-prohibitive,” Ward said of the program that costs “tens of thousands of dollars per month”. “It’s hard to maintain. We’re hoping that the retail establishment sees this, and will join in financing this so we can continue our [expansion], but we would need support from the retail industry to do that.”

If it can get that buy-in from retailers in the area, the 34th Street Partnership might consider making these patrols permanent.