Newly-formed statewide task force takes aim at organized retail theft in Washington

Retailers statewide lost a combined $2.7 billion dollars' worth of goods to organize retail theft in 2021.

Washington State Attorney Bob Ferguson used the statistic to justify the need for a new organized retail theft task force on Thursday. It will be made up of local law enforcement, prosecutors and retail stores.

"Right now, it’s so easy to steal," said Mark Johnson with the Washington Retail Association.

The goal of the task force will be to provide better collaboration, and to share intelligence about groups of people who may be crisscrossing the state, targeting stores and pharmacies.

"This involves a group of individuals that steal products not for their own personal profit, but to resell them for a profit," Ferguson said.

He said nine other states have similar task forces, but this would be a first for Washington State.

"We are seeing organizations using the dark web," said Nick Brown, the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington. "They’re raiding Home Depots, raiding Fred Meyers, packing it up, sending them overseas to other countries, selling them for massive profits—it’s not the shoplifting cases."

But it’s the small-time, constant shoplifting and lack of prosecution that have frustrated many businesses over the last several years.

"I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing in a [store] in my hometown of Olympia, a theft going on as I’m checking out," recalled Johnson. "And I said, ‘That person’s stealing those backpacks. Are you going to stop them?’ They go, ‘It’s not worth me not going home tonight to my family to chase them out into the parking lot—they could be armed, they could have a weapon, I could get hurt, I could get bear-sprayed, stabbed, shot."

Many large chain stores have corporate policies that tell employees not to engage with a person who stealing from the store. A store’s theft prevention officer sometimes stops a thief, but many are not armed, and the thieves know that.

"What retailers have to balance out is the risk of a customer getting injured or killed, an employee getting injured or killed, or even the perpetrator—the suspect—getting injured or killed," said Johnson. "Is it worth it for that product that they may lose? And I would have to contend that there is no product or amount of product that can really replace that individual that may be hurt."

The task force will be going off the organizations that have "tentacles" of thieves that work from them, and won’t be focused on other types of shoplifting.

"What it’s not is someone who is trying to steal something for their personal need," Ferguson said. "They got an addiction problem—that's not what we are talking about, we are talking about organized efforts on a broad scale."

The Bellevue Collection will be one of the participants in the task force. The head of security doesn’t like the notion that thieves won’t be caught.

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"We stop them, they will say, 'Hey you can't touch us,' we go, ‘Yes, you are under arrest,’" said Karl Kleinknecht, Director of Security. "The Bellevue Police Department is usually there in two minutes, and [the suspects] are actually shocked that they are going to King County Jail.

The task force will have its first meeting on July 7.