VACAVILLE (CBS13) — You've likely seen the videos on social media or the local news: groups of people rushing into a store, grabbing armfuls of merchandise. The brazen crimes are on the rise and CBS13 has learned, in most cases, the crooks get away from authorities.
After searching police reports and arrest records, CBS13 found that while the rate of these grab and dash crimes is on the rise, the rate of arrest is down. We turned to law enforcement and the retail industry for answers. Both blame a California law intended to make "neighborhoods safe."
THE ANATOMY OF THE CRIME
"It's a boldness like we're seeing never before and just a disregard for fellow human beings," said Lieutenant Mark Donaldson, Vacaville PD.
He explained these crimes have evolved into more than just shoplifting. It's organized retail theft and he says it's happening across the state. Cities like Vacaville, with outlets and shopping centers located near major freeways, tend to be a target for these organized retail crime rings.
According to police data obtained by CBS13, there have been 746 reported retail thefts in Vacaville alone over the past year. More than half of those suspects got away.
Police say these suspects often target stores with easy access to get-away cars and with easy access on and off major freeways because crooks know most department policies won't risk the dangers of a high-speed chase over a misdemeanor citation.
"They know the law," Donaldson said. "One of the first things they ask us [is] 'Can't I just get a ticket so I can be on my way?'"
He explained many suspects know theft under $950 is now a misdemeanor, meaning most get a written citation, a court date and are released.
WHY POLICE BLAME PROP 47
Donaldson and the California Police Chief's Association attribute the growing problem to Prop 47.
"I think if you would ask most in law enforcement, [it] has had a significant impact on why we're experiencing this," Donaldson said.
Prop 47, known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, passed in 2014. It was intended to keep non-violent criminals out of crowded prisons. And, among other things, the law more than doubled the amount a suspect could steal before facing a felony from $450 to $950.
Since 2014, police records show the annual loss to retail theft in Vacaville has more than doubled. Records show reports of organized retail theft in Vacaville, crimes with multiple suspects, are up 40 percent this year compared to before Prop 47.
FBI crime data also shows retail theft state-wide is up. The California Police Chiefs believe it's because the penalties have gone down.
"The consequences are so small in nature that it makes that risk worth it," Donaldson explained.
The National Retail Federation's annual survey found in more than half the states with laws like Prop 47, when the felony threshold increases, so do losses to organized retail crime.
According to the survey, "In states where the felony threshold has increased, over half report an increase in (organized retail theft) case value. None reported a decrease. It appears that criminals understand the new threshold and have increased their thefts to meet it."
PROP 47 SUPPORTERS POINT TO OTHER FACTORS
But prop 47 supporters note that crime is caused by many factors and they warn that statistics don't prove Prop 47 is to blame.
Thomas Hoffman, a retired police chief and former parole director for the state, represents the group that sponsored Prop 47. He noted that misdemeanors are eligible for up to six months of jail time.
"The law is clear, they can be held accountable," Hoffman said.
He also pointed to the new "organized retail theft" law took effect this year that does allow cases with multiple suspects, or multiple stores, to be charged as a felony.
"And if that isn't happening that's not because of Prop 47, those are local decisions often made by DAs, city attorneys, whoever is in charge of prosecuting those cases," Hoffman said.
DAs NOT CHARGING THEFTS AS FELONIES
CBS13 reached out to the District Attorneys in more than half a dozen local counties and found, despite the increase in crime, only two DAs have charged anyone with a felony under the new law.
CBS 13 learned that there were at least 164 retail crime arrests involving multiple suspects in the first half of the year in Vacaville alone.
When we first reached out to the Solano County DA in August, they told us they had not charged anyone under the new Organized Retail Theft Penal Code – 490.4.
. At the time they said that no cases had been "referred to the agency" by officers under the new Penal Code.
However, about a month later, and the DA's office told CBS13 they had since charged their first two cases under the new organized retail theft penal code.
Placer County told CBS 13 they had charged 5 cases under the new Penal Code.
RETAIL POLICIES MAY BE CONTRIBUTING
But in order to be charged, the suspects have to be arrested. CBS13 also found that while the theft rate is up, the arrest rate is down.
Donaldson said there are many factors that go into to why suspects are not being captured more often. One significant factor: "there seems to be less and less store employees getting involved."
The Police Chiefs Association points to a growing number of retailers with policies not to engage - or even report these crimes. The National Retail Federation said that the trend is due, in part, to policies focused on employee safety because of more aggressive shoplifters.
"With the advent of more aggressive retail criminals, many retailers do not want their untrained non-loss prevention associates risking their personal safety while confronting suspected shoplifters," said Robert Moraca, the Vice President Loss Prevention for the National Retail Federation. "We prefer that they observe and report incidents to their loss prevention or management team."
We reached out to several major retailers and stores that have recently been robbed. They confirmed the no-interference policy but several say they do report crimes to law enforcement after the fact.
In most cases, employees are told to report theft to corporate loss prevention managers, who then compile video or evidence and later report the crimes to police. It is unclear how many of those cases, if any, are investigated by local authorities after the fact.
However, in light of the fact that many retail thefts are now only these are misdemeanors, law enforcement admits that they are not as likely to devote resources and man hours to tracking suspects down after the fact.
THE PUSH FOR CHANGE
Vacaville crime data shows nearly half of those who were arrested for these crimes over the past year, 169 out of 372, were on parole, probation or had a warrant at the time of the crime.
The Police Chiefs Association is now sponsoring legislation that would amend Prop 47, adding a felony for serial theft with a value of $250 below the pre-Prop 47 limits.
"The Keep California Safe initiative would help California by revising the theft threshold, adding a felony for serial theft. The initiative would require that when a person is caught for the 3rd time stealing with a value of $250, it becomes a felony," said Ronald A. Lawrence, CPCA President.
Though supporters of Prop 47 argue that the existing Organized Retail Theft law is sufficient, it's up to DAs to charge these crimes accordingly.
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