New Mexico Governor launches an effort to confront organized crime. In April, she signed a bill into law that makes it easier to charge serial shoplifters with felonies rather than misdemeanors.
( Morgan Lee
Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger. Retailers have been lobbying the press and legislators to support a slate of new laws aimed at fighting the retail crime epidemic but when Nicole Lewis, the Engagement Editor at the Marshall Project, began digging into shoplifting data from the National Retail Federation, other lobbying groups, and law enforcement, she became less convinced there was an epidemic at all. In February, she published a piece called What the Panic Over Shoplifting Reveals about American Crime Policy. She says that the crime stats provided by the stores themselves might help clarify the situation if only she had a chance to look at them.
Nicole Lewis: Every year, these retailers report their numbers. This is a self-survey. When I asked the retail federation to say, "Can I dive into this raw data? I'm really curious how it's collected," they said, "No, of course not. We're not going to give that to you. That's proprietary information."
Micah Loewinger: When you say self-survey, you mean a trade organization asking CVS, Walgreens, Target, "What are you seeing?"
Nicole Lewis: Exactly. Then the other layer here is that when I went back and I dug into every single survey that they've conducted between 2016 and now, out of curiosity, I was like, "Well, has this problem actually been getting worse?" The share of stolen merchandise that comes from actual retail theft has stayed stable around 1.4%, 1.5% for each of those years. Basically, what that is saying to me is, yes, the cost or the overall amount has increased, but the share that they're attributing to people actually stealing has stayed the same from 2016 to 2021 when they did their last survey.
Micah Loewinger: Wait, sorry, I'm a little slow. Explain that to me.
Nicole Lewis: Basically, the headline is it's actually not getting worse, things are getting more expensive. If someone were to steal 10 gallons of milk in 2016, that's one cost, but if you stole 10 gallons of milk today, it's more expensive. That's how we get from $90 to $94 billion.
Micah Loewinger: Their own data does not bear this out. Let's talk about what should be more reliable data like law enforcement data. Are they seeing this big spike in so-called organized retail crime that we've been hearing about?
Nicole Lewis: Organized retail theft is a new category of this kind of crime. The umbrella term would be property theft, just generally stealing. In a lot of places, the police couldn't even really charge you with organized retail theft because it doesn't exist as a crime category yet. When I asked police departments and asked states and asked task forces, "Is this something you're tallying?" They say, "No, for the most part, shoplifting exists in this amorphous, lumpy category of property theft."
Micah Loewinger: Putting the obvious sort of propaganda elements aside, New York has seen a spike in shoplifting. That we can prove.
Nicole Lewis: Correct. Just recently, the Council on Criminal Justice looked at the police data that we do have available to say what's happening here. In New York, they found something really important. That shoplifting in New York is 16% higher in the first half of 2023 than in the first half of 2019. I think what's important to know is when we take New York City out, the trend changes. Shoplifting actually declined over those periods. Out of the 24 cities that the Council on Criminal Justice looked at, 17 reported decreases in shoplifting. Again, it really does contradict that national narrative that it's surging out of control everywhere and tells us that in some places this is a really concentrated major issue.
Micah Loewinger: The data is either incomplete and unreliable or outright does not support this narrative and yet-
Nicole Lewis: Exactly.
Micah Loewinger: -you can't tell me that those videos of cars crashing into stores or shoplifters flashing guns or knives on Home Depot employees or flash mobs rushing out of a store with loads of goods are not real.
Nicole Lewis: No, this is really important point because I don't want to make it seem like I'm saying, "Oh, calm down it's fine." We've all seen those videos and I was actually even in a CVS not that long ago in my neighborhood, and a man came rushing in with a duffle bag. He clears off a shelf, he runs out, he does say, thank you.
Micah Loewinger: Polite. [laughs]
Nicole Lewis: Right. Thank you for these stolen goods. All of the CVS attendants are standing around, the police are nowhere in sight, so absolutely, something is happening. I think the question here is, there are a couple. One is, is it really as bad as the executives say or as they'd like us to believe? Then the other big question is, what do we do about it? Are the methods that they're advocating for, is the involvement of law enforcement, stiffening of penalties, is that actually going to solve the problem? When I think about how consequential crime policy is to Americans' lives, that's really where I'm saying, "I think we need to pull back and really make sure that we're understanding the scope of this problem, what we can and cannot say about it."
Micah Loewinger: Yes, I was reading a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the so-called brazen burglars who are leading part of this shoplifting epidemic. The article made it clear that on the West Coast with, quote-unquote, "more lenient law enforcement policies," we're seeing a bigger problem. Tell me how this perception, this fear of an increase in shoplifting is translating into policy.
Nicole Lewis: Yes, it's so fascinating because even hearing that talking point in the Wall Street Journal, I'm thinking this sounds so shockingly familiar to what the lobbyists for retailers were telling me. When I go to talk to criminologists and I say, "Is it true that lenient policies around property theft are driving up property crime? Do we have any data or research that backs that up?" The resounding answer is just that is not how it works.
One good example of this comes from Pew. There has been this trend over the last several years for states to basically increase the threshold, increase the amount of goods you'd have to steal before triggering a felony charge. This is really important because let's say you set that number in the 1990s. Today again just the milk analogy, you don't have to steal nearly as much milk before you would trigger a felony and so that means that people were getting felony charges for a thing that wouldn't actually have been a felony in the '90s.
Micah Loewinger: If you set the price needed for a felony higher then in theory you're locking up fewer people?
Nicole Lewis: Right, so this was a really important reform and a number of states said, oh, my God, yes, we should probably do something about this. Pew went back and they looked and they said, "Okay, well, now we have this natural experiment where we can say, 'does it actually matter if people are going to be charged with a felony? Does that increase or decrease the amount that people are going to steal?'" The answer was clearly no. States that did change their threshold had the same overall decline in the overall property crimes, in the last few decades, as states that did not.
Micah Loewinger: Give me a sense of how widespread these shoplifting laws are. Are they growing?
Nicole Lewis: They absolutely are. When I reported this story out in February a handful of states had already changed their laws that year. This was California, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina. Then there were about 11 states that were considering legislation that would more harshly punish people caught stealing from stores.
Female Speaker 7: Virginia lawmakers passed a bill making it a class three felony to steal more than $5000 worth of retail from one or more stores over the course of 90 days.
Female Speaker 8: Organized retail theft that's been an issue here in Minnesota.
Male Speaker 4: Yes, bipartisan legislation aimed at fighting organized retail theft passed this spring. It adds much stiffer penalties including prison time.
Male Speaker 5: The Alabama District Attorney's Association says that the state will adopt new laws for stiffer penalties.
Female Speaker 9: There's a new law that's designed to crack down on this type of crime in North Carolina.
Male Speaker 6: In New Mexico, prosecutors will now be able to combine the value of merchandise stolen from various stores over a 90-day period, making it easier to charge serial shoplifters with felonies rather than misdemeanors.
Nicole Lewis: This is a large share of states now that are being influenced by a trade association and making these penalties harsher or adding new categories of crimes to their statutes.
Micah Loewinger: Let's just talk a little bit about incentives here. Obviously, CVS, Walgreens, Target they don't want people to steal from their stores clearly. Why else are they pushing this unfounded narrative of a national shoplifting spike?
Nicole Lewis: This story that I wrote even started because we heard a Walgreens executive reporting out of an earnings call basically saying we cried too much last year about how many products were disappearing from our shelves.
Micah Loewinger: Basically just admitting, why say that?
Nicole Lewis: Yes. Well, they said this because there's just huge financial implications. They had paid to hire private security to police their stores to make sure that the merchandise stays on the shelves and that's the cost to them. Then the data says maybe we didn't need to spend that much. They walked it back and he was basically announcing the decision to let those private security companies go. That was the context of the admission. Just a few years earlier, Walgreens had tried to use shoplifting and rampant shoplifting as the reason behind their decision to close five stores in San Francisco.
What we know about the Walgreens scenario is it turned out not to be true. These decisions had been made months if not years prior, and then I'd say there's one other thing that becomes really important and it's all about the cost to these retailers. If you can make it so that there's a public panic, the public sees these videos, they go into CVS and items are behind plexiglass, there's a public concern, there's a need to say we really got to get a handle on this. Lawmakers tend to be pretty responsive to that kind of public energy about an issue. The retailers get to externalize the cost of dealing with this onto state lawmakers and law enforcement to say, hey, it's police, and it's prosecutors, and it's the state legislature that needs to change the laws and order for us to get a handle on it.
Micah Loewinger: There's reason to believe that they will get their way because they're lobbying both at the national level and at the regional level, is just super strong.
Nicole Lewis: Yes, retailers are a very, very important part of our economy. They're major employers and the transactions that happen in our stores generate a ton of sales tax. States have a huge interest in making sure that retail interests are taken care of.
Micah Loewinger: I've seen credulous profiles of executives who are combating the shoplifting epidemic at their store nationwide. We've seen this kind of breathless TV reporting that includes these sensational, but otherwise not representative clips on TV news. We know what bad coverage looks like. What does good coverage of shoplifting look like?
Nicole Lewis: There's one simple thing, just one thing that reporters can do when they're faced with these stories, when they have law enforcement or they have executives coming to them saying, "This problem is so out of hand and we got to close all these stores." You say, "Thank you for this information. How do you know it is true and can you show me?" We need to see the data and the sources that they're looking at, that inform their talking points.
Micah Loewinger: Nicole, thank you very much.
Nicole Lewis: Thank you so much for having me.
Micah Loewinger: Nicole Lewis is the Engagement Editor for The Marshall Project.