By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
A confession: When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to pinch items from stores in the Roosevelt Field mall near our homes on Long Island. We only did it a couple of times, taking some candy, batting gloves, a baseball bat, a mitt. It was mostly on a dare, to see if we could do it.
Any feelings of guilt were assuaged by the thought that we were heisting goods from big stores that wouldn’t notice the loss, and we got a good laugh from a line in the Commander Cody song “Stealin’ at the 7-Eleven”: “Steal from them or let them steal from you!”
Those were the days before security cameras and alarms that were triggered if you took unscanned merchandise out the door. Oh, you could still get caught, but we feared the long faces of our parents more than we feared the long arm of the law.
Fast forward 50 years or so and shoplifting has reached levels of brazen absurdity across the country. You’ve likely seen the news footage of people simply marching in, cramming bags with stuff, and marching out while employees watch helplessly. In a truly American “15 minutes of fame” moment, one shoplifter at a Rite Aid drug store at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street in mid-town Manhattan stopped to be interviewed by a reporter from the New York Post.
“Sometimes I feel bad for these guys in charge, you feel bad for the security guys,” said the thief who claimed to have been stealing from establishments like Rite Aid for months without being arrested.
The common explanation for this crime wave is that there are no significant penalties attached to this kind of theft. At least 38 states have raised their felony threshold to $1,000 worth of stolen goods, and the value of each incident is counted separately. In California, you need to pinch at least $950 worth. Bail reform in places like New York is being blamed for putting dedicated thieves back on the street immediately.
This has made shoplifting a lucrative business for organized gangs that fence stolen goods online. Naturally, there is no shortage of bargain-hunting customers or Artful Dodgers (who often need to support their addictions) willing to go out and pick a Rite Aid or two on behalf of the gangs. Low-wage jobs that make it hard to make ends meet are also helping to fuel the pool of purloiners.
New York City has reported levels of thievery not seen in 30 years: 26,000 complaints last year. It has gotten so bad that some stores have had to lock stuff up behind glass or simply shut down, as the Rite Aid mentioned above is doing after having $200,000 worth of merch swiped in the past two months.
“They come in every day, sometimes twice a day, with laundry bags and just load up on stuff,” a store employee told the Post. “They take whatever they want and we can’t do anything about it. It’s why the store is closing. They can’t afford to keep it open.”
And little is being done to stop it. Some stores forbid their employees to engage with shoplifters. Last year, a clerk at a Rite Aid in Los Angeles was shot and killed after he confronted two men. Employees worry about being fired or even sued if they touch the accused. “All you can say is, ‘Please, please don’t do that,’” a security guard at a CVS at 49th and Broadway told the Post.
At times, the pandemic has had the silver-lining of tamping down street crime, but mankind’s dark urges must play out somewhere. Pandemic anxiety and economic stress, the breakdown in trust between cops and the communities they serve, substance abuse, political rage, a pervasive urge to settle beefs, all of it makes it hard to feel safe these days, which feel a long way from the time when I as a privileged, protected, clueless middle-class kid who thought shoplifting was a harmless joke.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.