February's Retail Security column discussed how in-store personnel can recognize and thwart organized retail crime. There may come a time, however, when professional retail crime rings manage to pull off thefts in your store. When that happens, many managers wind up tearing out their hair in frustration because local police or prosecutors refuse to treat the case as the serious crime it is.
Unless the authorities are familiar with ORC, they may not recognize its patterns or its ramifications. Thieves know their crimes often pass under the radar; in fact, they count on it. That's why they engage in shoplifting rather than crimes that carry harsh penalties. But the profits from ORC are often funneled into terrorist activities, making this seemingly benign criminal activity a serious national threat.
Build a Relationship
MPO Jack White of the Fairfax County (VA) Police Dept. has spent the last 18 of his 29 years on the force working retail crime. His beat is the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, VA, where several large stores, including Sears, JCPenney and Macy's, serve as anchors. He says retailers' biggest ace in the hole is an established, professional relationship with a police officer who genuinely enjoys working retail crimes.
"Cops who like retail crime hang around shopping center areas," White says. Those are the officers retailers should cultivate a relationship with, "not the ones who are second or third on the scene when you call for service."
According to White, officers who enjoy working retail crimes will take the time to explain how to work a case. If they take the extra step of running a crime history on an apprehended shoplifter, and if they take the time to question the suspect and try to get a confession, you have likely found an ally who will help you navigate the justice system.
"Cultivate the officer's interest," White advises. "Tell the cop about problems you're having in the store, and explain any history your store has with the criminal," he says.
Hand the Prosecutor a Good Case
Everyone likes it when an easy job falls into their lap-the kind where they don't have to do much work, but they get to collect the pats on the back for a job well done. Prosecutors are no exception. In fact, they are so overworked that unless you do present them with a case on a silver platter, they may blow it off in order to concentrate on "really important" crimes.
Retail crimes are sometimes a difficult sell, because the notion that organized rings are targeting the nation's stores and diverting profits into terrorist activities has not yet penetrated the national consciousness. So when a prosecutor has to choose between a violent crime or drug offense and a case in which the defendant stole merchandise from a store, the retailer generally gets the short end of the stick.
The first thing loss prevention departments can do is make sure that every "t" is crossed and every "i" dotted. If any form has not been filled out properly or any report is unclear, the prosecutor will almost certainly kick the case back without filing charges. To avoid this, an experienced supervisor should look at all paperwork before it is turned over to the authorities.
One of the biggest problems White encounters is a lack of factual information in LP reports. "If you can answer who, what, when, where, why and how, you'll have a good case," he says. "Also, the report must be chronological and articulate. You can't say, for example, 'The dude stole and I caught him.' Supervisors must train security personnel to write properly."
If the paperwork is in order and the prosecutor still won't file charges, White recommends that you ask for a meeting so that you can learn exactly what the prosecutor's office requires in order to pursue a case. "Ask the prosecutor how to fix a case if you're told it's not a good one," White suggests. "That will demonstrate that you're interested in bringing them solid cases."
Sometimes, he says, you'll have to go over a prosecutor's head to a supervisor if you're not getting cooperation at the lower level. "Make an appointment to discuss your frustrations and find out what they'll need from you in the future," he adds. "There are prosecutors who are interested in retail cases, and a supervisor may steer you to one that you can work with over time. Also, if you bring them really good cases, they'll work them."
Getting and Giving Training
If flaws in security reports keep your cases from being prosecuted, more training for the staff is in order. Your company doesn't have to shell out big bucks to bring in a consultant, however. Local police are often willing to come to the store and give you instructions about everything from making a good apprehension to filling out the paperwork correctly.
At the same time, you have an opportunity to educate the authorities about the scope of the ORC problem. Gather materials, such as articles from professional and trade magazines and news reports (search the News area of Google with key words such as "shoplifting" and "retail crime"), and use them to paint a picture of the overall problem.
In addition, present your own statistics. If you keep track of large-dollar thefts, you can start demonstrating patterns of ORC. If you collaborate with other stores in your area and all of you show your information, the police and prosecutors will start to get a sense of just how large the problem is.
"If the prosecutors understand the problem, they can go to the judge or magistrate, whoever sets the bail, and point out the ORC angle," White says.
Get Help from the Media If you're not able to get the point about the magnitude of the ORC problem across to the local authorities, it may be time to bring out the big guns: the media.
"Get the newspapers to write about the problem," White says. "If it makes the papers, the politicians will start doing something about it-like putting pressure on the prosecutor's office."
The FBI is in the position of being able to bring interstate charges if an ORC ring crosses state lines in the course of committing their crimes, for example. Like other law enforcement, however, they may not be aware of the scope of the problem and may be unwilling to take any action.
"When local cops make the papers and say that they can't take a case any further, but the Feds could if they got involved, that's when you'll start to see some action," White says.
Liz Mart'nez is a leading security expert and the author of The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Fraud and Violence (2004, Looseleaf Law Publications). She is a member of ASI S International. Ms. Mart'nez is delivering a paper at the CPM West conference on business continuity in Las Vegas in May. She can be reached through her Web site at www.RetailManagersGuide.com.