Godek: Retail theft costs all of us


Dennis Godek has served as a New Castle County police officer and as an assistant chief of career services at the Christiana Fire Co. He currently is chair of the New Castle County Fire & Ambulance Advisory Board, a liaison between county government and fire/emergency medical services. He also is a founding member of the Delaware Statewide Active Assailant Committee and part of the Advisory Board of A Better Delaware.

Delaware residents and businesses continue to suffer from the consequences of retail theft. In 2022, the total revenue lost to retail theft in Delaware was $285 million. Nationally, retail theft losses increased by 10.5% in the same year. When combined with losses from “return fraud,” Delaware businesses lost a total of $547 million in 2022. While Delaware’s retail theft per capita rate is a little lower than the average among all states, the numbers are beyond unacceptable.

The ability of retailers to reduce retail theft has been seriously impacted by their reluctance to have employees apprehend and detain suspects due to the increase in violence directed toward employees. Many retailers, including national chains, now prohibit their employees from intervening during a shoplifting. In fact, across the country, employees apprehend shoplifters only 2% of the time. As a result, it is not unusual to see criminals casually walk into an establishment, pick up whatever merchandise they want and walk out of the store unabated.

Organized retail theft crime is a major challenge for retailers and law enforcement. The retail crime epidemic has led to the initiation of criminal enterprises dealing in the purchase and sale of property stolen in retail thefts. Arrests have been made in Delaware, but the activity continues. In January and March, the Delaware State Police charged individuals with organized retail theft in three separate cases in New Castle and Sussex counties. One of those charged was tied to multiple thefts in three states through surveillance camera footage. Three of those charged in Sussex County were found to be in possession of over $20,000 worth of stolen property. All three were from New York City. In 2017, the Delaware Department of Justice civilly sued multiple individuals for racketeering for operating a $6 million business, which purchased property stolen in retail thefts and then sold it to individuals.

Our criminal justice system has not adapted adequately to this serious crime problem. Incidents are often not reported, and the consequences fall to the employees and business owners who bear the burden of these crimes. We have seen Target and Walmart, as well as Walgreens and CVS, close multiple stores in Delaware and across the country, with retail theft as the primary reason. People lose their jobs, maybe their homes, and the taxpayers see an increase in unemployment compensation, along with other economic effects.

The state of Pennsylvania saw an increase in retail theft between 2021-22. The Pennsylvania legislature took definitive action and passed a law in 2024 that indicates a sea change in the approach to retail theft prosecution. The law requires the appointment of a deputy state attorney general and the hiring of a team of prosecutors specifically focused on retail theft throughout the state. The law also elevates retail theft to a felony-level crime, based on the amount of value of property stolen. This includes a Class 1 felony for property stolen valued at more than $50,000. Under the law in Pennsylvania, a Class 1 felony is punishable by a prison term of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $25,000. In the case of the New York City thieves captured in Sussex County, under the new Pennsylvania law, they would be guilty of a Class 2 felony and would be subject to a prison term of up to 10 years and a fine of up to $25,000. This is the type of commitment to addressing retail theft we must see in Delaware.

Retail theft may be considered a “nonviolent” crime, but even absent physical assaults, the consequences to businesses and employees are serious and life-changing. Many perpetrators will be sentenced to probation in our courts. While some are attempting to legislate any consequences out of violating probation and weakening probation to near irrelevance, we must advocate for holding criminals accountable for their actions.

Advances in technology, training for employees, collaboration with law enforcement and efforts through business associations are all contributing to the battle against retail theft, but the criminal justice system must not be able to excuse their way out of their duty to effectively prosecute these criminals.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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