Walgreen Tam Junction

Brazen retail theft in the Bay Area and beyond has been a hot topic for several years now, with no shortage of social media footage of cars queuing up outside certain shops, with perpetrators making a mad rush into premium shops and darting off into the distance, with nary a consequence.

Kelly Smith, president of United Markets in San Rafael, told the IJ that shoplifters grab a few bottles of wine off the shelf, stuff them in a bag and try to leave. An employee intercepts the thief. The shoplifter looks at the employee, says “stop me if you can,” and walks out the front door.

“Experts credit several circumstances for today’s shoplifting problem: an uptick in organized retail theft, social media posts that facilitate organized ransacking, increased homelessness, widespread drug addiction and a societal move away from incarceration for less-serious crimes,” IJ reporter Krissy Waite writes.

San Rafael police Sgt. Justin Graham said the current laws allow thieves to get comfortable with stealing — and even target the same stores repeatedly. He cites Proposition 47, passed in 2014, which reduced most theft and drug offenses to misdemeanors. For theft to be charged as a felony, the value of the item must be at least $950. Additionally, most stores have policies that prevent employees from chasing theft suspects for their safety and to reduce liability.

A 2018 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Proposition 47 might have contributed to a 9% rise in theft, mostly from vehicles, and that it probably “reduced both arrests by law enforcement and convictions resulting from prosecutions by district attorneys.”

“The work we do here is, unfortunately, more reactive than proactive,” Graham said. “It’s a challenging moment for sure.”

Video surveillance footage, which might seem like compelling evidence, can be challenging because it can be of low quality or the software can be difficult to work with, Bates said.

At United Market in San Rafael, Smith said has tried various strategies to curb the problem. She said everything from food and alcohol to beauty products and laundry detergent are targets. Beyond asking the thief to leave, which often results in the shoplifter bolting past employees with the merchandise, she said she feels like her hands are tied. “I’m being attacked every single day and there’s nothing I can do,” she said.

Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli said the majority of the misdemeanor theft cases her office sees are crimes that occurred in San Rafael or Novato. Punishment often involves diversion if the offender shows good behavior, takes a class, completes volunteer hours and leads a “law-abiding life.”

“I am aware that some merchants do not report these crimes as they fear confronting the suspects,” Frugoli said.

When stores are not willing to sign a citizen’s arrest form, it presents a challenge because of a legal requirement that bars officers from making an arrest for a misdemeanor crime that occurred outside their presence, Mill Valley police Lt. Shaun McCracken told the IJ. The law also requires victims to identify the suspect and request a citizen’s arrest for the violation, he said.

“Beyond the hours our staff puts into these cases, it also has the potential to lead those committing these crimes to believe that their behavior is acceptable and can lead to the perpetuation of these incidents,” McCracken wrote in an email.

In an informal survey of merchants and restaurants throughout Mill Valley in recent weeks, we received two instances of theft, though there were at least two more earlier in 2023.

We encourage residents and businesses to share instances of theft to the Mill Valley Police Department by calling 415-389-4100 or 911 if it’s an emergency.

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