Sensitive to an increase in robberies of more than 20 percent from last year, Prince George's County officials are trying to assuage the fears of retailers and consumers during the holiday season with a new anti-shoplifting program.
The initiative is intended to keep the recent crime spike from affecting holiday-season sales at county malls and shopping centers. In November, a man died after being beaten at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, and county officials said they want to make sure such incidents don't hurt the county's economy.
County Police Chief Melvin C. High said police liaison officers will start to meet regularly with major retailers and will begin to share information about stolen goods more closely with the department's pawn unit.
The department will also tap into an electronic system used by other jurisdictions and retailers throughout the region to track retail crime. The system sends immediate alerts with photos of suspected thieves, license plate numbers and other information to police departments. An additional 200 officers will also walk the county's shopping malls during the prime shopping season.
"This is not reinventing the wheel. This is a proven method that many communities use," High said. "What we have in terms of retail theft is chronic offenders who engage in repeat thievery. Our big focus will be on major thieves that operate in our community."
The initiatives in Prince George's will put its retail crime program on par with neighboring jurisdictions that already cooperate to track down sophisticated organized retail crime rings, said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. Members of those retail crime organizations track when new merchandise, such as video games and clothing lines, is scheduled to be released and often walk out with thousands of dollars of goods, police and retailers said.
"I have heard off and on over the years from certain members that there was a concern that retail crime in Prince George's County did not receive the kind of attention it should," Saquella said. He began meeting with the county's economic development officials to discuss the problem in January. Those discussions led to the program the county has adopted.
Retailers said police officials in Montgomery and Fairfax counties and the District already share information about suspected organized retail crime. Those police departments are also stepping up patrols and increasing surveillance to prevent theft. Every year, the Fairfax County police department rolls out a Christmas anti-theft team to patrol malls and work with the security teams at major department stores. According to a recent statement released by the department, that team recovered $67,104.44 in stolen goods last year.
The District has also added officers to its retail patrols, a spokesman said. The Montgomery County Police Department does not substantially increase its patrols, said Detective David Hill of the department's retail crime unit, but looks out for increased theft and fraud by staying in touch with retailers and other police departments to track down shoplifting suspects.
Nationally, retailers report annual thefts totaling about $30 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Neither the county police department nor the state retailers association could say how much theft has cost retailers in Prince George's. But Olivier Tchi-Ngambu, a loss-prevention specialist at Lowe's in Largo, said that in the past six months, $350,000 worth of merchandise has been stolen from his store alone. The organized thieves often hit many stores in the chain successively, he said.
"They take large-dollar items like power tools and faucets, [and] they just walk out," he said. "They don't care about the sensors."
George Barthel, a retail loss specialist for Giant Food, said he has also seen shoplifters grow more cunning and difficult to catch. "They will take the stolen merchandise, repackage it and sell it as a wholesaler back to the retailer. It is very sophisticated."