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Why Law Enforcement Should Be Retail’s Biggest Collab: ‘Losses Are Getting Larger’

Most of the disruptions and frustrations encountered by retailer are beyond their control. While the industry can’t do much about pandemics, recessions, climate change and geopolitical conflicts, one damaging aspect the industry can do something about is theft and shoplifting.

To that end, David Johnson, the National Retail Federation’s VP of loss prevention and retail operations, led a panel discussion with members of state and federal agencies as well as retail to discuss how all parties can partner to get a handle on the rash of increasingly violent and sophisticated organized crime rackets that are severely impacting retailers’ bottom lines.

“I believe the post-Covid era of retail crime has changed the landscape,” said Millie Krisevich, senior director-asset protection for EssilorLuxottica, the eyewear giant. “Today’s criminals are much more brazen than in the past. It’s gone beyond concealing property when in stores. Today’s criminals sweep shelves and aggressively affect employees while in stores and it’s making it very difficult for retailers to protect stores because the cost is so much more than it’s been in the past.”

The panel was part of Monday’s discussion sessions at the NRF 2023 Big Show convention at the Javits Center in New York City. Krisevich represented the retail side of the issue, while a pair of government officials addressed the successes they’ve had at the state and local level.

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“A recent survey shows almost $100 billion of retail loss in 2021 with over 26 percent of businesses claiming organized retail crime is on the rise, so this is a great time to talk to these indviduals to see what we need to do as partners,” Johnston said. “The losses are getting larger, and retailers are doing a lot to change, but retailers can’t do it alone.”

The Illinois attorney general’s office has had some of the greatest success in combatting organized retail crime nationwide. Adam Braun, its executive deputy attorney general, told the NRF audience that his office only became aware and involved because of consistent testimony from retailers.

“It was really the first we had come to learn of it and once we started looking at it we could see the extent of impact it has, talking to retailers large and small about how it impacted those businesses,” Braun said. “Based on those experiences, which we never would have learned about but for outreach and advocacy, we set up a criminal enforcement division partnering with local and state officials. Following that policy we began working with the state legislature and other state [attorney general] offices… and we put together some legislation we believe will allow law enforcement to better approach organized retail crime.”

The first of its kind in the nation, the Illinois task force has broken up multimillion-dollar heists, including a recent bust in November that led to the arrest of 10 people and the recovery of more than $7 million in fencing equipment.

“When our office first began investigating these crimes, we were just blown away by the sophistication. Clearly these were not isolated instances of somebody stealing a particular item,” Braun said. “The way these organizations would orchestrate, they knew the county with one law enforcement would be separate from law enforcement in another county and we saw the proceeds of these crimes used in very similar other criminal endeavors.”

Braun said there are six counties in the Chicago metropolitan area and criminal ringleaders were clearly aware of the lag effect that would have on communications between departments.

“We were seeing that wasn’t an accident,” Braun said. “They were really taking advantage of loopholes and blindspots in the law.”

Representing the federal wing, Department of Homeland Security division chief Maria Michel-Manzo said her department’s “Operation Boiling Point” fights organized retail crime on four pillars, including financial institutions and in partnership with the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists (ACAMS).

“We started the national lead development center, where people are able to send leads we send to offices nationwide to prosecute these groups, working with the [Department of Justice] to disrupt and dismantle them,” Michel-Manzo said. “We have an awareness campaign that takes you to the [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] website that shows what we’re doing with ACAMS. It’s a 53-page guide that is pretty much a step-by-step guide to see how to prosecute and get rid of some of these organizations.”

Michel-Manzo said DHS first got involved with fighting ORC in November 2021 in the wake of the killing of a law enforcement officer in Oakland responding to a retail theft case.

“We started by reaching out to retailers in California, because there was a lot of organized retail crime in California. We talked with the NRF and started having these webinars,” Michel-Manzo said, adding that the number of webinars now exceeds 30. “I think we’ve supported 36 cases and still have another 60, recovering about $119 million in loss.”

The federal government further responded at the end of 2022 by passing the INFORM Act, which is intended to make it more difficult for retail thieves to re-sell their ill-gotten goods online, but Krisevich would like to see Congress do more.

“The INFORM Act is definitely a step in the right direction,” she said. “If we can put the Combatting Organized Retail Crime Act back on the docket for 2023—we’ve tried to do that a few times, but I think 2023 could be a good year for that.”

Johnston said that in the meantime, communication between retailers and with elected officials is the most vital thing the industry can do to contain this manageable epidemic.

“It’s going to take coalition and partnership, and we’d like everyone to help,” Johnston said in closing. “You can build awareness in your own community and make sure you’re reporting. We’re seeing a lack of statistics in [reported] data that is not corresponding with what police are seeing. Meet with your state legislatures. NRF has established a phone number and you can help advocate by sending a letter about how important the ORC Act really will be.”