Commonwealth Journal

January 29, 2014

Somerset Councilors OK $25,000 for program to combat shoplifting

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

Somerset city officials are showing their support of a program targeting shoplifters in the area — to the tune of a $25,000 commitment. 
David Dalton, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney with Pulaski Commonwealth’s Attor-ney Eddy Montgomery’s office, appeared Monday before Somerset City Council to speak about the “Project Shop-Loss” program.
The project, which was tried out as a pilot program in January 2013, focuses on communication between the local retailers and authorities in uncovering shoplifting rings in the area. 
City councilors on Monday voted unanimously to provide $25,000 yearly to go toward the program, a commitment that can be evaluated and renewed each year.
The funds come directly from the regulatory fees collected by the city’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. 
Dalton began his discussion with a short anecdote about his visit to his children’s’ school for a talk with the students. Dalton said he asked the students if they had ever seen a shoplifter arrested at a local store, and the response was shocking. 
“At least 70 percent of the hands went up,” said Dalton. “ ... We talked then about making good choices and bad choices.” 
Dalton said the students’ response made him think about the high number of shoplifting incidents in the county, and he said the idea of Project Shop-Loss developed from there.
“If I can make an impact in my home town at the level the kids were seeing, that would be worth my time,” said Dalton. 
Dalton said he and others involved in the program began to quickly realize that shoplifters weren’t taking items one at a time — and it was usually a team operation. 
“This is not just some act of a 16-year-old stealing a stick of gum,” said Dalton. “What we have are folks that drive up by the car loads and ransack the stores. Over Christmas, we even had people with shopping lists ...”
Dalton said they began looking at the alleged shoplifters as serious offenders, not just petty criminals. Dalton said through teamwork with the local retailers, they began to set up a system that involved banning shoplifters from the stores — which would make a return and another theft a burglary — and prosecuting the serial offenders as members of an organized crime network. 
“This is organized crime, too, except it’s coming out of your pocket book,” said Dalton. “ ... Let’s hit them as hard as we can.”
Dalton said within the first year, he saw shoplifting incidents in the local stores go down.
“We made some significant licks, and I’m talking some 20 year sentences out of some people who make a career out of it,” said Dalton. “ ... Our local retailers are seeing dramatic losses in their retail loss.” 
Dalton said they hope the program can help investigators make headway in other criminal cases, especially when it comes to tracking down the offenders thanks to help from the retailers’ loss prevention specialists. 
“The guy that breaks into the house is probably the same guy shoplifting,” said Dalton. “Or they’re stealing items to make a meth lab.”
Councilor Jim Rutherford, who dealt with his own fair share of shoplifting incidents during his tenure as a Somerset Police officer, said the loss prevention specialists can often recognize the repeat offenders. 
“These people just don’t shop at the Somerset Wal-Mart,” said Rutherford. “They’ll ... do it in several locations. They’re spreading the risk. One loss prevention employee will spot that person as they come in the store. They have to be mobile, they have to use accomplices.”
City councilors threw their support behind Project Shop-Loss. 
“I like the idea, I think it’s good,” said Councilor Jerry Wheeldon. “... I’d like to see them caught because they need to work for it just like everybody else.” 
Rutherford asked whether some of the funds put toward Project Shop-Loss could also be used to educate the public about the program. 
“We need to let the public know that this program exists and that it’s a serious program,” said Rutherford. “... They have to know that this is around and they’re liable to be caught, and there will be consequences.”
Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese said the city’s money must be kept in a separate fund to go directly for public use in the program. She said the fund must be eligible for public scrutiny, as per open records laws.  The city’s funds, Wiese said, will go directly to costs for running the program.