The rate of thefts in Washington and the United States has soared – fueled in part by the pandemic. Several factors have contributed to this. With mask requirements it has become increasingly difficult for retail loss prevention and asset protection officers and police to identify suspects. As violent crimes have spiked, police and prosecutor resources have been stretched thin – often forced to put theft and other property crimes on the back burner or ignore them outright. Retailers and their customers are caught in the middle. Theft in Washington is approaching a billion dollars a year – over 45 billion nationally. This leads to product shortages, higher prices, and an increase in counterfeit goods.
In order to stem the tide of theft – we unfortunately will never be rid of it – retailers, law enforcement, prosecutors, and governments need to think outside the box and develop creative ways to address this plague on our society. Pierce County is leading the way in putting resources in a solution – that I hope will be successful and replicated around the state and across the nation.
Here is the problem. A vast majority of theft is committed by individuals unfortunately suffering from substance addiction, mental illness, or both. Theft ring leaders knowingly prey on these folks in crisis and “employ” them to commit the crimes. They know that someone with a substance addiction will do just about anything to get their fix. The leaders will often give their employees lists of items to steal, with specific instructions on which stores to hit and how much to steal and what to do if they are caught. If the thief is caught, the consequences are usually minor. They may be trespassed by the store. They may be taken into custody by police and even jailed for a period of time. Unfortunately, it is rare that these cases go to trial. The thief is often back out stealing again the next day or even the same day. This system is not working. These people need help to break the cycle.
The solution. Pierce County has recently opened a diversion center. This center is staffed by professionals trained in helping people suffering from substance addiction and mental health issues. A police officer can take a suspect to the center rather than straight to jail to see if they can receive the needed treatment to hopefully get the individual healthy again and out of the cycle of stealing to feed their illness or addiction. This in turn will hopefully lessen the strain on our overburdened police, prosecutors, and courts.
This is a bold new approach to a growing problem. I hope Pierce County is successful in its efforts and others will follow suit. Together we can break the cycle of theft and help many vulnerable people find a new path away from crime.