© Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle 2020// Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer
By: Denise Simon | Founders Code
It all escalated with Prop 47… you remember that right? Going back to 2019, in part from the Federalist:
Rachel Michelin, who currently serves as President of the California Retailers Association, explained to Fox News the crude savviness of the latest generation of shoplifters. “[Shoplifters] know what they’re doing. They will bring in calculators and get all the way up to the $950 limit.” She continued. “One person will go into a store, fill up their backpack, come out, dump it out and go right back in and do it all over again.”
Retailers tried to work through the shoplifting with higher training for employees and more security systems and officers… due to the volume, the retailers just lost the battle. Residents in the area of San Francisco and actually around the state live in lawlessness.
No one is above the law unless it is the woke crowd and there is a value threshold.
That changed in March when Walgreens, ravaged by shoplifting, closed. Susoeff, 77, who sometimes uses a cane, now goes six blocks for medication and other necessities.
“It’s terrible,” he said. On his last visit before the store closed, even beef jerky was behind lock and key. A CVS nearby shuttered in 2019, with similar reports of rampant shoplifting.
“I don’t blame them for closing,” Susoeff said.
Last year, burglaries increased in most San Francisco neighborhoods. Shoplifting decreased under pandemic lockdown and dropped slightly the year before, but incidents are often underreported and have become more violent and brazen, police said.
Retailers attributed a majority of losses to professional thieves instead of opportunistic shoplifters who may be driven by poverty, with one CVS leader calling San Francisco a hub of organized retail crime. Losses have shuttered drugstores providing vital services, even more critical during the pandemic as some stores give out vaccines.
“This has been out of control,” said Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who held a hearing Thursday with retailers, police, the district attorney and probation departments. “People are scared to go into these stores — seniors, people with disabilities, children. It’s just happening brazenly. We can’t just as a city throw up our hands and say this is OK. We have to come up with solutions.”
The cost of business and shoplifting led Walgreens to shut 17 locations in San Francisco in the past five years — an “unpopular and difficult decision,” Jason Cunningham, regional vice president for pharmacy and retail operations in California and Hawaii, said at the hearing. The company still has 53 stores in the city.
Theft in Walgreens’ San Francisco stores is four times the average for stores elsewhere in the country, and the chain spends 35 times more on security guards in the city than elsewhere, Cunningham said.
At CVS, 42% of losses in the Bay Area came from 12 stores in San Francisco, which are only 8% of the market share, Brendan Dugan, director of organized retail crime and corporate investigations, said at the hearing.
CVS and Walgreens said they train employees to be engaged and visible to prevent theft, but to not confront thieves directly when it could turn violent. CVS security guards in San Francisco have been assaulted, especially at the now-closed Seventh and Market streets location, Dugan said. Some businesses instead hire costly off-duty police officers.
Although the majority of CVS shoplifting incidents in the city are by opportunists, Dugan said, professional crime accounts for 85% of the company’s dollar losses. He said San Francisco is one of the “epicenters” of organized retail crime, pointing to an $8 million state bust in the Bay Area last year.
Officials agreed that different responses were needed depending on why someone was committing a crime. San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Doug Welch called in to the hearing to say his clients charged with shoplifting are not part of organized crime, but are homeless or struggling with substance abuse and need more services.
The San Francisco police burglary unit focuses on investigating serial shoplifters, especially if they’re violent, police said. Beat officers patrol known shoplifting areas. Last year, around 31% of shoplifting incidents resulted in arrest, a percentage that declined over the past couple of years, police said.
A statement from Safeway read at Thursday’s hearing blamed Proposition 47, which lowered penalties for thefts under $950, for “dramatic increases” in shoplifting losses. Safaí said he is proud of Prop. 47 and supports criminal justice reform and rehabilitation, but also urges prosecution for organized crime and community ambassadors to prevent opportunistic shoplifting.
Professional shoplifters can work the system by stealing items under the threshold from one store and hitting several retailers in the same day. To prosecute, the district attorney has pursued aggregated charges for multiple petty theft incidents by the same person, such as a recent case of stolen scooters. Police said a person could also be charged with possession of stolen property worth more than $950.
As officials try to stave off crime, San Franciscans suffer from shuttered stores. Residents tried to save the Walgreens at Bush and Larkin in March, circulating a petition and arguing that the next closest store was not handicapped-accessible.
“This has become a lifeline for many seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income residents who cannot go further out to other stores to get what they need,” the petition said.
The store still wound up closing.