Other Views: Combat Organized Retail Theft in Washington With Coordinated, Sustained Effort


Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson is creating a statewide Organized Retail Crime Theft Task Force. It remains to be seen whether it will make progress or become just one more committee that holds meetings, makes recommendations and accomplishes little. At least there's some cause for hope this time.

It was probably only a matter of time before Democratic leaders did something about crime. If Seattle voters' electing a tough-on-crime Republican to be city attorney didn't spook them, the successful recall election of nationally prominent progressive prosecutor in San Francisco likely did. Crime is rising in the polls as a top public concern as quickly as confidence in Democrats' ability to handle it plummets.

Store owners are fed up, and shoppers are wary of heading into places where crime seems most concentrated, like downtown Seattle. Criminal groups prey on desperate people, recruiting them to steal from stores. Thieves hand the stolen goods over for drugs or money, and the organized groups sell the goods online.

From 2019 to 2020, the value of goods stolen from Washington stores more than doubled, and things aren't getting better. The Washington Retail Association estimates organized crime groups stole $2.7 billion from retailers in 2021.

Retail theft has turned dangerous, too. If it's not a woman waving a knife around a doughnut shop, it's a robber taking a store employee hostage or police exchanging gunfire with a suspect who had robbed a Bellevue cannabis store. In one week in March, two pot-shop robbers were killed.

In February, the King County Prosecutor's Office and the Seattle city attorney announced that they would partner to take on organized retail theft. New City Attorney Ann Davison also announced plans to expedite cases and prosecute more misdemeanor thefts, though she has run into resistance from progressive advocates.

So, if the county and the city are already working together to fight organized retail theft, how will the attorney generals' task force help?

By expanding the scope.

Organized retail theft isn't isolated to Seattle and King County. It occurs in Tacoma, Yakima, Spokane and all over the state. Stolen goods are sold online and shipped anywhere. Combating it will require a coordinated approach that brings together local, state and federal stakeholders. The task force therefore will include prosecutors, Washington's two U.S. attorneys, retailers, the FBI and local law enforcement. Nine other states have a task force dedicated to organized retail crime.

Success isn't guaranteed, but this nascent effort is a start. Ferguson has committed to quarterly meetings for at least a year. He also said that he will not target the shoplifters and other small-time thieves who are the foot soldiers of larger enterprises.

The public and retailers will expect results. Organized criminal groups have honed their tactics for years. Stopping them will take more than quarterly meetings. Washington can curtail the criminal networks, but it will take a sustained effort from law enforcement and Ferguson's office.