While retail theft continues to increase in Delaware, according to state police records, it doesn’t seem to be happening at the level reported in some cities.
“I am not aware of any widespread looting or any type of cases where there’s just been storming, just an overpowering into an establishment,” said Jason Hatchell, public information officer for the Delaware State Police.
At least one retail official says her stores see organized looting by groups.
Julie Miro Wenger, executive director of the Delaware Food Industry Council, which represents grocery and drug stores with a total of 12,000 employees, said that most of the retail theft they’re seeing is from organized groups.
“We’re not talking about individual shoplifting to be able to feed their families,” Miro Wenger said. “We’re certainly talking about folks that are coming in in an organized fashion that are going through our stores and are aggressive and blatant and have taken to stealing shopping carts full of product.”
She said she couldn’t cite any specific incidents
Retail theft in Delaware in 2023 is on pace to be higher than in recent years, state police records show.
State police have had reports of 1,059 incidents of retail theft or shoplifting this year, he said.
In 2022, it had reports of 3,319, up from the 2,477 incidents in 2020.
Those numbers, however, don’t include incidents dealt with by municipal police departments in Wilmington, Dover and Seaford, Hatchell said.
Police and business officials say that it’s possible more theft is occurring, but with hiring problems in police departments, manpower is often steered to more serious crimes.
Mike Quaranta, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, said it’s easier to see that larger companies have a big issue with theft, but the chamber also is still hearing from smaller companies that theft is an issue.
A small shop like a Rehoboth Beach bodega may not be seeing a higher rate of theft, but larger companies, including those national stores like Target and Walmart as well as regional companies such as ShopRite are reporting higher levels of theft, officials said.
Miro Wenger said that smaller stores such as Redner’s Markets and Janssen’s Market also are experiencing instances of retail theft.
Some stores have hired off-duty State Troopers to be on site, Hatchell said.
Tyler Micik, the director of public policy and government relations for the State Chamber of Commerce, said there’s a wide variety of smaller items that people tend to steal.
“It’s a mix…in some cases electronics, other cases smaller items like jewelry, makeup,” Micik said. “There’s a whole host of items that people are looking to take, and it just varies across the board.”
Micik cited a 2022 survey by the National Retail Federation in which 70.7% of respondents said they had either a minor increase or a major increase in organized retail crime over the past five years.
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Organized retail theft ranks third among the highest number of crimes, behind external theft that’s not retail and guest-on-associate violence
The survey interviewed 63 retailers across the country, with none making less than $100 million in sales volume.
Quaranta, who is also the mayor of New Castle, said that he’s spoken to police in his city, where he says employment shortages are making it harder for police to address all the retail theft they come across.
“That means that law enforcement is categorizing crimes, and they’re responding to the most substantial threats,” Quaranta said. “And frankly, parking violations, retail crime, etc. are pretty low on my list of things that they can dedicate precious resources, people, to address.”
Hatchell didn’t believe that could be applied to the Delaware State Police. As far as he’s aware, he said, police are responding to every call they receive.
“I wouldn’t say there’s not enough officers,” Hatchell said. “We’re responding to every call for service.”
Inflation, rising prices and a lack of prosecution contribute to increased retail theft, he said.
“I think there’s just not enough punishment to deter this act from occurring again,” he said. “There’s not just any one thing.”
Miro Wenger said there should be more punishment for shoplifters.
“When we’ve had some large cases that are then publicized, we have seen an immediate decrease,” Miro Wenger said. “And we’re anxious for some of these larger cases to be brought forward and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Hatchell referred questions about punishments to the state Department of Justice.
“I think the biggest thing is we need to…figure out a way to not have repeat shoplifters continue to steal merchandise time and time again,” he said.
That deterrent, he said, needs to be decided by legislators and community members.
Mat Marshall, public information officer for the Department of Justice, said shoplifting is a class A misdemeanor if the stolen items are priced less than $1,500 and a class G felony if the stolen items are above $1,500.
Organized retail theft is considered is a class A felony, if the items are worth less than $1,500. That rises to a class E felony if there are two more prior organized retail theft convictions. In addition, the value of the stolen items is aggregate, so a group of 10 each stealing $500 worth of goods will be charged with a higher felony count because together they have stolen $5,000.
The sentence for a class A misdemeanor is up to one year in prison and/or up to a $2,300 fine, for a class G felony it’s up to two years in prison, and for a class E felony it’s up to five years in prison.
Marshall said courts tend to have a lower starting point for sentencing because of mitigating factors like a lack of criminal history and acceptance of responsibility.
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