By Erica C. Barnett
A report from the city auditor’s office on the city’s response to organized retail theft concluded that the city, particularly the Seattle Police Department, is not doing everything it can to combat local commercial fencing operations that resell goods stolen by individual “boosters,” typically “”people who are homeless and people with substance use disorder,” who receive drugs or small amounts of money in exchange for bearing most of the legal risk for organized theft operations.
The audit, pointedly titled “The City Can Do More to Tackle Organized Retail Crime in Seattle,” points to a number of actions the department could take, without hiring additional staff or increasing its budget, to target people organizing thefts and directing the resale of stolen retail goods. City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Lisa Herbold announced the audit last year, and its chief author, the City Audit Office’s Research and Evaluation Director Claudia Gross Shader, presented its findings to Herbold’s public safety committee Tuesday morning.
Cities, like Auburn, that have been successful at reducing organized theft have succeeded by taking down the organizers of fencing operations—”cutting off the head of the snake,” as Gross Shader put it Tuesday.
The police department and City Attorney Ann Davison have rolled out numerous initiatives to crack down on the people at the bottom of the fencing food chain—Davison’s “high utilizers” initiative, for example, imposes extra penalties on people arrested repeatedly for stealing from stores—but have not taken meaningful steps to disrupt theft rings by focusing on the people actually running them, the report concludes.
According to the Washington Organized Retail Crime Association, organized retail theft refers to operations in which street-level shoplifters steal items in exchange for drugs or small amounts of money on behalf of fencers, who resell the items in markets that range from sidewalk setups to international theft and resale rings.
Under state law, however, a single shoplifting incident is considered “organized” if a person steals merchandise worth $750 or more in a single incident. As PubliCola has documented, the city has used the organized theft statute to prosecute people stealing valuable items without determining whether they are actually part of any organized theft ring.
The audit puts a number on this tendency to focus on cases that do not appear to be “organized” in any meaningful sense: Of the 49 “organized retail theft” cases SPD referred to the King County Prosecutor’s Office in 2022, 45 involved thefts that qualified because they were above the $750 threshold, while only the remaining four indisputably involved fencing. The 45 people in the former category were disproportionately Black (38 percent) and included people who were homeless and had substance use disorders.
According to the audit, responding to calls from just the top 100 retail locations in the city used up almost 19,000 hours of police time, equivalent to the work of nine full-time officers—”a significant body of work” that could be streamlined, the report suggests, by using tools like “rapid video response” (essentially a police version of Zoom) to interview store employees instead of sending officers all over town.
Although the report says nothing about police hiring, City Councilmember Sara Nelson said it validated her efforts to secure more funding for police recruitment, and suggested (for the second time in a week) that if the council would “just lift” a budget restriction that requires council approval before SPD can spend salary savings from unfilled positions, “they could spend that those resources on whatever they need to help with the crime situation.”
Although a report on place-based strategies specifically called for eliminating “extreme measures” like the razor-wire-topped fences the city installed to prevent people from accessing a parking lot at 12th and Jackson, the fences remain, giving the area the feel of a prison camp.
Chiming in a few minutes later, Councilmember Alex Pedersen said the “defunding movement against the police” movement had led to the loss of more than 400 police officers, which he said contributed to the spike in retail theft that began in 2020.
The audit found that although the city does participate in a number of collaborative efforts to address organized theft rings—including state and federal task forces focused on the issue—SPD could be doing a lot more to access existing resources outside the department. For example, the US Department of Justice offers free assistance implementing a strategy called Problem Oriented Policing, or POP, that addresses the conditions that lead people to do things like working for fencers with the goal of preventing crime rather than just reacting to it.
“Although POP has existed since the 1980s, SPD has not systematically implemented it,” the audit says. “In fact, SPD’s lack of experience with POP was seen as a limiting factor in a federally funded pilot project designed to address two downtown Seattle crime hot spots.”
The city should also invest in “place-based strategies”—better lighting, activating vacant lots, and other non-law-enforcement approaches—to make “hot spots” less appealing places for people to operate illegal street markets. SPD proposed 68 such strategies last year for the intersection of 12th and Jackson, a frequent target of aggressive “hot spot” policing operations, but the city has only implemented three of them.
Although the SPD report specifically called for eliminating “extreme measures” like the razor-wire-topped fences the city installed to prevent people from accessing a parking lot at 12th and Jackson—specifically because they make the area feel “unsafe”—the fences remain, giving the area the feel of a prison camp.
Another problem the auditors identified is that when police arrest shoplifters who work for fencing operations, they rarely interview the people they arrest to find out how the operations work, squandering opportunities to disrupt the market for stolen goods.
Last year, as part of an effort to build cases they could actually prosecute, the prosecutor’s office created a checklist of information SPD needed to provide before sending a case to the county. According to the audit, none of the five cases SPD filed after getting the checklist had all the required information, and all five are currently on hold because they lack information the prosecutor needs to move forward. The audit recommends training detectives in how to use the checklist, which includes four items and detailed instructions on how to obtain them.