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Does Washington need to change its approach to shoplifting?

Federal Way Civil Court Judge David Larson has overseen shoplifting cases in his city for more than a decade. Things have changed a bit over that time.

“The demographic is much different,” Larson told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “From what I hear, there is more violence associated with shoplifting. People are more desperate because a lot of folks who are addicted are concerned about their withdrawal. So they are doing everything they can to get that next dollar, so they can buy more drugs, so they don’t get to that point. So the desperation becomes greater.”

“Some reticence by some of the retailers is they don’t want their employees in danger,” he said. “My son’s friend is a loss prevention officer and he got his head ran over by a car. Bottom line is that there is the safety of the workers and the safety of the public.”

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But that’s on the court’s end of the problem. On the other end are the various legislators in Olympia who make the laws that the courts enforce.

State Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) represents the 45th Legislative District, which includes areas of Sammamish, Woodinville, and Kirkland. He argues that shoplifting has been getting worse and worse in recent years. So much that he is convening groups of state lawmakers to change Washington state’s approach to the crime. Goodman says that shoplifting is really two different types of crimes — organized theft, and “run-of-the-mill shoplifting,” which is simply pocketing an item.

“We’ve tried to amend the law, and I hope we can get it done this year, to take account of intent,” Goodman said. “In other words, if you put something in your pocket, intending to leave the store, our current law doesn’t allow law enforcement to intervene until you leave the store, until you are outside.”

“So the loss prevention officers in the stores want to be able to intervene in the store,” he said. “So we have to change the theft law to account for concealment, the showing of intent to steal.”

Solving shoplifting

The way Judge Larson sees it, the people in his Federal Way courtroom are either “a can’t,” or “a won’t.”

“You have to have a system that, if you are one of the can’ts, if you are somebody who just can’t do it and you need help, we need to help,” he said. “But if you are a won’t, if you just flat out don’t want to cooperate, don’t want to participate, then the punitive system needs to kick in.”

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“I’ve had a kind comment made, this one woman, it made all the difference in the world. I just said, ‘You’re going to get through this.’ And it made all the difference in the world,” he said. “You got other people; I got a guy who I haven’t seen in a while, but he’s got 200 crimes. I put him away for 400 days one time, and he was back within two weeks.”

One solution, in a word, is coordination. Both Goodman and Larson say that law enforcement, courts, and services for addiction treatment are not aligned as well as they could be — and it’s counterproductive.

One typical scenario, Larson lays out, is that a person will go to in-patient treatment, but a lot of facilities don’t communicate this with the court. Because of their current legal problems that are not being addressed while in treatment, a warrant is issued by the court. Even if they move on with their life, the warrant will catch up with them, which threatens their housing, job, insurance, etc.

“Just coordination, and communication, and the system itself sometimes will contribute to the failure of these individuals,” Larson said. “So how do we shore those things up? How do we make it so that we on our end, the system itself, aren’t contributing to it?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had a regional approach to be able to have a hand off by courts to services – a warm hand off?” he asked.

Goodman says that lawmakers in Olympia are moving in that direction — treating addiction-related offenses as medical issues instead of straight crimes.

“Fifteen years ago, we were locking people up who had addiction, the drug war was raging,” Goodman said. “We really are phasing out of that and looking at it as a health problem. So we have to build up the infrastructure now and have the courts coordinating with that.”

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“You say ‘shoplifter’ and what comes into your mind? Someone who is intending to steal something,” he continued. “Maybe it’s one of those ‘won’ts.’ They are flouting the law. But then, probably a larger category, because this is what he hears from retailers, are people who are in crisis. People who don’t want to go into withdrawal or aren’t thinking right. That’s not the same as criminal intent.”

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