There was no shortage of pressing issues to consider at last week’s public safety committee meeting. The city is experiencing a seasonal surge in violence. Meanwhile, the Seattle Police Officers Guild all but admitted engaging in blue flu strike actions, and some of its highest-paid members were caught slow-rolling a shooting-in-progress last year. Overtime spending is out of control, and there have been new revelations about the cozy relationship between SPD and the police monitor as all parties imagine an exit from the consent decree. 

In the preceding week, SPD saw its first police shooting of the year as well as the department’s first known (and unsuccessful) use of its newfangled BolaWrap device. The same week, Publicola confirmed by video that the officer who killed a young woman with his police cruiser in January wasn’t running his sirens while driving 74 mph in a 25 (a pervasive and ongoing practice). 

But never mind all that. The public safety committee has bigger fish to fry: poor people stealing from multi-billion-dollar national retail chains.

The Amount of Time and Money We Spend Defending Big Boxes

A report on so-called organized retail crime from the City’s auditing team, drafted with the input and approval of retail associations, topped the committee’s agenda. One key takeaway: the City spends way too much money dealing with shoplifting.

In 2022, shoplifting calls accounted for about 18,500 patrol hours, roughly equal to nine full-time sworn officers. Target stores accounted for three of the top 10 shoplifting locations. Two Safeways made the list, as did one Lowe’s. Rainier Valley Square, a shopping center that contains a Safeway and a Ross, topped the list. Northgate Shopping Center, which also has a Target, made an appearance, too. 

The auditor likely underestimates what the City spends on shoplifting. In its focus on patrol hours and calls for service for shoplifting-related issues, the report seems not to factor in the costs of massive deployments such as “Operation New Day,” which involved plainclothes detectives staking out stores downtown and shooting surveillance photos of homeless people stealing paper towels.

It’s likewise unclear if the auditor counts emphasis patrols, where officers just hang out at high-crime locations in large numbers. Police frequently post up outside of the Ross in Rainier Valley Square, or in a decrepit mobile precinct they use as a sort of scarecrow.

The committee’s decision to focus on the interests of gigantic corporations based elsewhere rather than on the interests of the people in this City is particularly galling considering the relatively small scope of the problem. 

0.3 Percent 

Target reported $763 million in inventory shrinkage last year. That sounds like a huge number, but it’s only 0.7 percent of the company’s $108 billion in sales, or half the average reported by all retailers. 

Although retail associations often purposely conflate “shrinkage” with shoplifting or “organized retail crime,” external theft consistently accounts for about 40 percent of shrinkage. Breakage, spoilage, and employee theft accounts for the rest. None of Target’s corporate earnings reports list a breakdown, but if we assume the company experiences a similar spread, then it’s losing less than 0.3 percent of its revenue to shoplifting. That’s about 1/20th of the Washington state sales tax, which the company bakes into the price of goods. 

Nevertheless, Seattle spent roughly 1,600 SPD officer hours (almost an entire full-time officer) at just three Target locations in 2022.

Many of the biggest “victims” of shoplifting are some of the most prolific perpetrators of a kind of theft greater than all others kinds combined: wage theft. Since 2000, Target has paid out at least $22.5 million in fines and settlements for wage violations. The Minneapolis-based company fields multi-million-dollar class action suits over wage violations more or less annually They settled the most recent case in January for an undisclosed amount. 

Other big beneficiaries of SPD’s publicly funded loss-prevention services, such as Safeway, have faced similar lawsuits. Last year, the United Food and Commercial Workers union accused the grocery giant of underpaying 9,500 workers in Oregon and Washington, which the company blamed on a “glitch.”

These amounts hardly reflect the massive scale of wage theft, which mostly goes unreported and unpunished. When regulators do catch companies, they often settle for pennies on the dollar or else subject them to modest fines.

Furthermore, drug addiction largely drives shoplifting, and drug stores such as Walgreens, Rite Aid, and CVS make up many of the corporate chains eating up thousands of patrol hours. These companies collectively paid billions of dollars to settle their legal liability for driving the opioid crisis through negligent practices. Bartell’s sold millions of opioid pills around the Seattle area and was fined $800,000 for filling prescriptions from unlicensed providers.

Since 2020, these same corporations led the pushback against the movement to redirect funds from police departments to housing and social services. In recent years, retail associations, like the one that assisted the City in its audit, planted sensational stories about “organized retail theft” in news outlets nationwide and vastly exaggerated the problem. Washington’s state retail association has ties to regional dark money networks that bankroll crime hysteria.

Recently, CNBC breathlessly reported Target’s implausible prediction that its inventory shrinkage will grow by $500 million this year because of “organized retail crime.” In the article, CNBC notes the data on theft from the National Retail Federation “is anonymized and shared by retailers, so it cannot be fact-checked.” 

As retailers doomsay about the supposed catastrophic impact of shoplifting on society, we’ve seen several instances of violence by police and store security personnel. Around about the time that Walgreen’s CEO admitted that the company “cried too much” about shoplifting, Walgreens security shot two alleged shoplifters in separate incidents, killing one. Earlier this year, a special shoplifting unit in Virginia fatally shot an unarmed Black man in the back. A police officer in New Mexico was fired for roughly detaining a man with a disability who was taking too long to pay at the self-checkout at Target.

These retailers socialize the cost of responding to shoplifting while privatizing the benefits. Amid a budget crunch and a supposed police “staffing crisis,” the City spends scarce public funds to protect an infinitesimal fraction of the massive profits generated by this rogue’s gallery of wage thieves and drug-pushers. The auditor’s report suggests ways to minimize the use of police resources, such as taking reports by video call to avoid dispatching officers to do them in person. But there’s a better way: make these large retailers pay for the police services they use.

Pay People Not to Steal, or Else Charge the Stores for Security

These sorts of arrangements already exist. Stadiums subsidize overtime for flagging at their events. The Business Improvement Areas contract with the City to provide paid emphasis patrols. If a dozen or so large retailers shared costs, the impact on their bottom lines would be almost nonexistent.

The City could use the cost savings to address root causes and implement many of the measures suggested by the auditor’s report, such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Seattle could also fund bolder, more unconventional approaches.

For example, we could pay people not to steal. That might sound like a harebrained scheme, but it worked for youth gun crime in California. 

The Advance Peace model drastically reduced shootings on a shoe-string budget by paying young gang members to stay out of trouble and meet certain goals. A small group of at-risk kids entered into a fellowship and received a stipend as long as they avoided arrest, participated in mentorship activities, and enrolled in a GED program. 

One analysis credited the program with reducing gun homicides and assaults in Stockton, CA, by 21 percent over a two-year period. The two-year cost of the program—$897,000—amounted to less than what SPD patrol spent responding to shoplifting calls last year, and it yielded upwards of $110 million in cost savings. 

There’s no reason why we couldn’t create a similar program for Ann Davison’s 100+ “high-utilizers,” a group of mostly poor, mentally ill, and/or substance-using people who cops keep arresting and cycling through courts and jails at great cost.

Following the Advance Peace model, we could pay “high utilizers” to avoid arrest, meet with a social worker weekly, enroll in job training, and get drug treatment. At an average patrol officer wage of $57 per hour, the City already spends a little more than a million dollars for the patrol response to shoplifting. When we factor in the salaries of public defenders, prosecutors, and judges, the cost of prosecuting and jailing “high utilizers” for a year would easily crest $10 million.

For less money, we could establish a targeted intervention that offers meaningful financial incentives for people to get off the streets, stay out of jail, and get clean. The Mayor has already floated a half-assed version of this idea, suggesting low-value Amazon gift cards as a means to induce homeless people to get treatment.

However, on balance, the general approach is still almost entirely stick and no carrot. The promise of a stipend of a few hundred dollars a week would encourage people to stay engaged with social services and get on a track towards stability. A program like this would also put some money in their pockets so they don’t have to steal.

While this idea might fly in the face of conventional wisdom, it offers a more realistic chance of reducing property crime than anything anyone has suggested thus far. As the auditor’s report suggests, SPD has no capacity to investigate fencing operations (and their overall effectiveness was dwindling even before staffing dropped), so the only option is to prosecute poor people with drug problems who “boost” items and sell them. 

Stuffing these people into overcrowded and deadly jails isn’t cost-effective, humane, or sustainable. We need to make large retailers pay their part and use those funds to stand up a real solution.