San Francisco police officers have been working as security guards at drugstores and other retail outlets. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

San Francisco police officers have been working as security guards at drugstores and other retail outlets. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

High-profile drugstore thefts expose deep-seated issues in S.F.

‘The systemic inequality in our society is what’s fueling organized retail theft’

You can see it playing out every day at Seventh and Market streets. Goods stolen from retail stores and cars are openly traded for cash, or turned in for dope. It’s a one-stop shop.

This sketchy, mid-Market corner represents a cycle of crime that’s been going on for years. But some people may not realize how it’s all connected, contributing to some of the biggest problems facing San Francisco today.

“The thefts feed the drug use, feeds the mental illness, feeds the homelessness,” said San Francisco police Sgt. Jennifer Marino, who investigates organized retail thefts. “We are in a cycle that I see happening in San Francisco, around California and around the country that is going nowhere fast.”

A man pulls body wash bottles out of a backpack and lines them up at United Nations Plaza near Seventh and Market streets on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

A man pulls body wash bottles out of a backpack and lines them up at United Nations Plaza near Seventh and Market streets on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

While the crime is hardly new, a recent viral video showing a man brazenly stealing goods from a local Walgreens has renewed attention to the chronic problem of organized retail theft in San Francisco, raising questions about what can be done to stop it.

Whether the problem is getting worse is up for debate. While some retailers say their losses from theft are rising and driving a slew of drugstore closures in San Francisco, police data shows that reported shoplifting has trended down since 2018.

At Seventh and Market, thieves hawk everything from deodorant and cosmetics stolen from drug stores to clothing stolen from the Ross discount clothing store nearby. The items end up being sold on e-commerce sites like eBay, at flea markets around the Bay Area or at second-hand stores.

“A person who can’t afford to buy the cosmetics from Walgreens or Victoria’s Secret, they’re able to get it half off,” said San Francisco prosecutor Myles Campbell, who until recently handled organized retail theft cases. “It’s kind of like the systemic inequality in our society is what’s fueling organized retail theft.”

But not all of the thefts are being committed out of desperation. In fact, authorities say more are being committed by organized crews who target specific items and are in-and-out of stores before police arrive. They hit not only drug stores but expensive retailers in places like Union Square.

The District Attorney’s Office has charged one crew of six different suspects in connection with some two dozen incidents, Campbell said.

Marino said the variety of suspects arrested by police runs the gamut from “homeless drug addicts to sophisticated criminal organizations.”

“We have got everything in between,” Marino said. “We have got the guy who steals just to buy enough dope to get his fix all the way to very sophisticated criminal organizations stealing $80,000 to $100,000 at a go.”

Many of the suspects are also tied to gangs or other crimes like auto or residential burglaries, streets robberies and even violent crime like homicide, she said.

“It’s a misnomer to think that all the people doing organized retail crime are just trying to feed the baby at home with a can of formula,” Marino said. “Many of them are feeding a high-level lifestyle.”

While she recalled taking shoplifting reports at Walgreens when she joined the force in 1995, Marino said retail theft has become more frequent for repeat offenders, costly for retailers and sophisticated over the years.

How the situation got to this point depends on who you ask.

A common refrain from law enforcement is that Proposition 47, which reclassified thefts of less than $950 from felonies to misdemeanors, is to blame. The California ballot measure from 2014 was meant to reduce the state prison population. But it means suspects are often cited and released for thefts under $950.

Critics also blame The City’s progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin for being soft on crime. His office was unable to provide The Examiner with requested prosecution data in time for the publication of this story.

Jim Dudley, a criminal justice lecturer at San Francisco State University and retired San Francisco police deputy chief, said both Prop. 47 and Boudin are factors. A third element adding to the “bonfire” is retailers preventing their employees from stopping thieves to avoid getting sued, Dudley said.

“You have retail stores shooting themselves in the foot by telling their managers and security people that we now have a no-chase policy, a no hands-on policy,” Dudley said. “If there are any factors, that’s probably one of the biggest.”

At a Board of Supervisors hearing last month, a CVS drugstore official acknowledged that security guards are there to comfort customers and employees — not for deterrence. Retailers will instead hire San Francisco police officers to work overtime and stand guard at their stores.

So, what are the solutions to this problem

• To combat the crime, authorities are focused on orchestrating major operations to break up the criminal organizations that make retail thefts profitable. Both San Francisco police and prosecutors have partnered with the California Highway Patrol’s Organized Retail Crime Task Force on such operations.

• Last September, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office worked with the CHP and other entities to investigate a major theft ring that was selling goods stolen from Bay Area retail stores internationally. The operation resulted in five arrests and the seizure of some $8 million in stolen products.

“Our whole goal here is to identify these organizations and engage in operations to disrupt their activity and also to take the organizations apart and dismantle them,” Campbell said.

But bringing charges against offenders is not always easy. Campbell said retail theft cases can be difficult to put together because organized crews use tactics designed to obscure their identities.

“They know it’s very hard for them to be caught and it’s very profitable for them to sell these products,” Campbell said. “What we are trying to do is change that mindset and change that cost-benefit calculation.”

“There’s no silver bullet,” he added. “It’s not something that we can just arrest and incarcerate our way out of. We have to give people other opportunities so that they don’t feel it’s necessary and we also have to make it less profitable by disrupting these fences and black-market networks.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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