Oregon law enforcement leaders and retailers are touting two new bills that aim to address the rise in organized shoplifting in the state, which has led several stores to close and has endangered retail employees. The bills would invest millions of dollars to aid law enforcement and the prosecution of theft, while also enhancing penalties for the crime.
Senate Bills 318 and 314, which recently received hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, have been supported by a large task force formed to address organized theft that consists of members from the Oregon Department of Justice, the district attorney’s office, law enforcement agencies and retailers.
According to task force leaders, SB 318 would allocate $5 million to fund operations to crack down on theft in cities and counties, while also paying for new positions in the Oregon Department of Justice to assist local government in fighting organized retail crime.
At the same time, Senate Bill 340 would allow prosecutors to pursue more severe penalties for those convicted of organized retail theft.
Current Oregon law defines organized retail theft to be when a person works together with one or more people to steal more than $5,000 worth of merchandise within a 90-day period.
In addition, DAs and prosecutors have proposed amendments to the bill to enhance the penalty for organized theft from a misdemeanor charge to a felony if thieves recklessly endanger people during a crime. The changes would also allow prosecutors to seek stiffer penalties for repeat offenders of retail theft, and to facilitate the legal process by charging an individual accused of committing numerous thefts over short time frame within a single case.
Retailers nationwide have been outspoken about the worrisome rise in shoplifting in recent years. According to the National Retail Federation, retailers across the country reported a 26% increase in organized retail crime incidents in 2021.
Oregon is no exception to this trend. For example, Oregon Safeway/Albertson’s complained of losing more than $15 million over the last eight years just within Multnomah County. In Portland, Walmart closed two of its stores for unspecified reasons, but people have speculated the shutdown was due to increasing theft. Nike has also shuttered one of its stores in Northeast Portland after citing theft and a lack of security. One consignment store in the Washington Square Mall in the Southwest area of the city reported that it was closing after being hit a whopping 19 times by shoplifters, amounting to more than $56,000 in losses.
Police say the rise in thefts is due to coordinated efforts to steal large amounts of merchandise and then resell them on the web or at flea markets. In some cases, retail employees have been threatened, injured or even killed during the brazen crimes.
“These individuals are targeting a large amount of merchandise at one time — losses from anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000,” said Phil Smith, a retail crime investigator for Fred Meyer and vice president of the Organized Retail Crime Association of Oregon, at the recent committee hearing. “As a result of these actions retailers are now starting to close doors or relocating to combat these issues.”
According to Michael, Wu, executive director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, the bill would protect employees of retailers as well by providing “the necessary protections that retail employees need as organized retail theft groups escalate into more threatening behavior towards employees and staff.”
The state’s largest business group, Oregon Business & Industry (OBI), estimated that organized theft has cost the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue. OBI lobbyist Derek Sangston told lawmakers that the crimes “are not due to houseless individuals just trying to get by or teenagers stealing candy bars,” but is instead “being driven by organized retail crime syndicates.”
Despite struggling with staffing shortages and other violent crime, the Portland Police Bureau has managed to crack down on theft in several “retail theft missions” involving Portland’s 205 and Gateway malls. After its most recent effort on March 5, the PPB said officers made 34 arrests, served 28 warrants, recovered seven stolen vehicles and salvaged more than $3,000 in stolen goods.
Jordan Zaitz, who works on the Portland Police’s Neighborhood Response Team, described the impacts to KPTV. “Right now retail theft is also associated with our drug issues, our stolen vehicles issues,” she said. “They’re all kind of combined together and all of it is affecting our community.”
Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office Detective Michael Zacher agreed, saying the thefts have been “largely driven by substance abuse and the ability to sell in secondary markets.”
Other agencies have been on the alert for such crimes as well. The Tigard Police Department in suburban Portland recently arrested a woman for stealing more than $40,000 in merchandise from Lululemon stores in Oregon and Washington.