Maryland county's police battle rising tide of shoplifting

Faced with an 11 percent countywide spike in thefts last year, county police officers are trying new techniques to stop thieves and shoplifters in north and west county.

In 2007, officers responded to 12,094 thefts. That was up from 10,822 the previous year and prompted the implementation of new anti-shoplifting and anti-theft programs in the Western and Northern Police Districts.

County police are analyzing data collected to glean details about hot spots, repeat offenders and high-theft items, said Sgt. John Gilmer, a county police department spokesman.

Data indicate that the area around Ritchie Highway, Crain Highway and Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard are prime turf for shoplifters in north county, while west county was hit by a string of thefts from autos, particularly of global positioning systems, he said.

When it comes to confronting accused shoplifters, police officers have some discretion. Usually, they issue a citation - a misdemeanor charge that doesn't create a major inconvenience for the accused.

But now, to serve as a greater deterrent, habitual shoplifters are taken to a police station, fully processed and are required to make a court appearance. If they fail to appear before a judge, a warrant can be issued for their arrest, bringing additional criminal charges, he said.

"When we do that it inconveniences the shoplifter. At the same time we are able to fingerprint and photograph the individual," Sgt. Gilmer said.

Many of the culprits in these cases are drug addicts trying to finance their habits. Pharmacies and video stores seem to be frequent targets, Sgt. Gilmer said.

Officers also are trying to deter both theft and shoplifting through more aggressive patrols, he said.

According to the National Retail Federation, an advocacy group for everything from mom-and-pop stores to large franchises, sophisticated shoplifting schemes are on the rise.

Organized retail crime is when a group of people conduct large-scale heists, stealing several items - possibly hundreds - in a single swoop. These goods are then sold primarily thorough flea markets or the Internet, providing seed money for other criminal activities.

According to a survey by the federation, 71 percent of retailers said they noticed an increase in this type of mega-shoplifting during 2007. This is up from 48 percent in 2006.

Research conducted by the federation and the University of Florida said that shoplifting accounts for $13.3 billion - slightly less than half of Maryland's budget - in retail losses nationwide every year with cards, novelties, accessories, hobby items and groceries accounting for the largest portion.

In west county, officers repeatedly responded to "scattered clusters" for thefts from autos. Thieves were particularly after global positioning systems, he said.

"A lot of times we were finding that GPS was left in plain view in vehicles," Sgt. Gilmer said.

The best way to stop the crime is to remove the temptation; keep GPS equipment and all other valuables in the trunk or hidden, he said.

Most of the thefts seemed to be quick smash-and-grabs, he said.