Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Debunking the Myth of a Shoplifting Crisis

States are passing new laws to combat retail theft, though government data doesn’t show that it is actually increasing. None of the new laws are likely to reduce crime and could disproportionately impact marginalized groups.

Batteries  locked up in a glass showcase
Batteries are locked up in a glass showcase at a grocery store in Calabasas, Calif. While retail chains are adding more security measures to combat theft, Walgreens’ CFO has told shareholders that concerns about organized retail theft were overstated.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Target recently announced that it was closing nine store locations because of “organized retail crime.” The term, which is often used interchangeably with “organized retail theft,” is being used more and more to describe viral videos of what’s often seen as “brazen” theft taking place in retail stores like Walgreens, CVS and Target. But what does it mean exactly? And does it actually describe a real trend or is it a myth propagated by corporations and the media?

As a research fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center, I have analyzed the organized retail theft narratives for years and worked with community-based groups to disrupt them by challenging how these news stories are leveraged for political purposes. Generally, organized retail crime refers to professional shoplifting, cargo theft, retail crime rings and other organized crime. It carries a higher penalty than standard shoplifting. But the lack of a clear legal definition leaves significant room for interpretation at the state and local level.

At least nine states have passed legislation based on substantially different definitions. In Delaware, organized retail crime is taking “quantities that would not normally be purchased for personal use or consumption.” Meanwhile, in Alabama, the term can be applied to someone who “receives, retains or disposes of retail merchandise,” having “reasonable grounds” to believe it was stolen. Yet, research shows that none of these laws are likely to reduce crime and could disproportionately impact marginalized groups. For example, when looking at historical arrest records, it is estimated that Black people were arrested and charged with organized retail theft more than twice as often as their white peers.

Articles warning of organized retail theft first began to appear around October 2020. Stories by publications like the San Francisco Chronicle and later SFGate cited rampant organized retail crime as the cause of Walgreens’ store closures in California. Then, a video pushed by Inside Edition showed what appeared to be someone jumping over a counter to grab goods before leaving the store on an electric scooter bike. It reinforced the idea of an organized retail crime wave by playing into fears about the potential failures of criminal justice reform. In many similar videos, we see one person grabbing a lot of stuff. But that does not establish a grand scale operation or crime ring.

Government data doesn’t show that retail theft is actually increasing. According to The Marshall Project, around 40 percent of law enforcement agencies (over 6,000) did not report their most recent crime data to the FBI at the time these stories started circulating. Also, police departments often do not distinguish retail theft from other kinds of robberies and larceny. And in the instance of the recent Target closures, data journalists have shown that where there is data available, in three of the locations slated for closure (in East Harlem, San Francisco and Seattle) there were fewer reported incidents of shoplifting in and around those stores than other stores that are not slated for closure.

And in January 2023, Walgreens’ chief financial officer, James Kehoe, told shareholders that concerns about organized retail theft were overstated, admitting the company had over invested in private security companies and mechanisms.

Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities. Store workers should not be in situations that could potentially escalate to violence. Local businesses are the lifeline to communities and should be able to thrive. That’s why we need more transparency, public data and legislative solutions, such as the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act, backed by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and its House companion bill.

We also need more responsible reporting practices. Many of these numbers and narratives track back to anecdotal videos, unverified eyewitness testimony or fuzzy numbers given by executives on shareholder calls. The fight to contain information chaos must include preventing the breakdown of context, which strips away a community’s humanity and history, and in turn, justifies continued injustices.

©2023 Progressive Perspectives. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Brandi Collins-Dexter is an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow, a Schuster Media and Technology fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and the author of the book “Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future.”

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
From Our Partners