Lynnwood police working to combat rise of organized retail theft in city

Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced in June the creation of a statewide Organized Retail Crime Theft Task Force, and while the Lynnwood Police Department isn’t directly involved with the force, it’s also taking measures to prevent organized retail theft in the city.

“We’re doing our best to try and stop the crime before it happens,” Lynnwood Police Chief Jim Nelson said.

Organized retail crime involves a group of individuals that steal products not for their own personal use, but to resell them for a profit. This does not include general retail crimes like petty theft, shoplifting or poverty-driven crimes.

An analysis from the Retail Industry Leaders Association estimates Washington retailers lost $2.7 billion to organized retail crime in 2021. Federal crime statistics show that the value of items stolen from Washington retailers increased by 151% from 2019 to 2020.

According to police data nationwide, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most stores in the U.S., retail theft rates plummeted.

“That was obviously to be expected,” Nelson said. “If all the stores are closed, you can’t really steal from them.”

However, since many businesses have begun opening back up, theft rates are steadily increasing, and Lynnwood police are getting calls from stores about merchandise going missing on a daily basis.

Nelson said many businesses have reached out to the police department and asked what can be done to help prevent so many items being stolen off the shelves.

“Businesses aren’t going to lock all of their items up behind glass or gates,” Nelson said. “Although ideal to prevent retail theft, it’s not exactly going to create the best shopping experience for customers, and people might take their business elsewhere. So, we have to try and find the best solutions with what we have now.”

Lynnwood Police Chief Jim Nelson

Nelson said that the police department is working to combat the rise in retail crime so it can’t continue to grow. 

So far in 2022, the Lynnwood Police Department has received 639 reports of retail theft, and has made 395 arrests regarding those crimes. With four months left until the end of the year, it’s a noticeable increase from 2020, at the peak of the shutdown, where 616 retail thefts were reported and 455 arrests were made for the entire year.

“A lot of (retail) theft is happening at and around the Alderwood Mall,” Nelson said. “So, we try to stay in really close communication with as many of those businesses as possible, specifically the ones that seem to get hit the most, for whatever reason.”

Nelson said he encourages businesses to call the police even if they see someone who seems suspicious but hasn’t yet shoplifted.

“If businesses do that, then at least we can get a patrol car heading that direction,” he said. “That way if something does happen, an officer is already enroute and has a better chance of catching the subject than if they were a couple miles away at the time of the theft.”

Nelson also said officers and safety volunteers try to routinely meet with managers of businesses who reach out for support. Officers are able to visit the stores firsthand, learn the layout of the businesses and get to know managers and store staff in person. This greatly helps officers in the future should they be called back to the store, since they are already familiar with the businesses.

“It’s really helpful for [staff] to just be aware and feel comfortable calling us,” Nelson said.

The police chief urges all Lynnwood residents, whether working at a business or personally shopping, to “See Something, Say Something.” Even submitting an anonymous tip through the police station’s online crime prevention portal can be extremely beneficial for officers, Nelson said.

And while the Lynnwood Police Department is not part of the formal Organized Retail Crime Theft Task Force, Lynnwood officers and detectives regularly participate in regional information sharing and meetings related to crimes the task force is investigating.

When announcing creation of the task force, Ferguson said the effort will be successful only if it is supported by multiple jurisdictions.

“Coordination is key to combating this growing, and sometimes dangerous problem,” Ferguson said. “These organized crimes cross jurisdictions and cause significant economic harm. I’m committed to working together with law enforcement and retail partners to help combat this significant and growing problem.”

— By Lauren Reichenbach

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