301.519.9237 exdirector@nesaus.org

7.2.23 – KTVZ – By Parija Kavilanz, CNN

In America’s Midwest, a bustling, mid-sized metropolis, known for its rich entrepreneurial heritage as home to both Pizza Hut and The Coleman Co

A local Victoria’s Secret lost $30,000 a month to theft, authorities say. The Cabela’s has reportedly lost more merchandise than any other in the nation. They’re not in San Francisco, Chicago or New York, the way some might assume. They’re in Wichita, Kansas.

A pattern of store thefts – not just one-off petty shoplifting incidents, but more serious planned and brazen heists from pricey luxuries to everyday products – has retailers on edge across the country. In some cities like San Francisco, retailers are closing up shop, pointing the finger at crime.

But it’s not just big coastal cities grappling with the problem. In America’s Midwest, a bustling, mid-sized metropolis, known for its rich entrepreneurial heritage as home to both Pizza Hut and The Coleman Co. is also wrestling with the gravity and pervasiveness of retail theft.

“I’ve lived in this city my entire life and to see this much retail crime, it’s shocking,” said Captain Casey Slaughter, who is in charge of the Wichita Police Department’s property crimes bureau.

Republican Kris Kobach, Kansas’ attorney general, said retail crime is a “spiraling problem” in his state, adding that Kansas and Missouri are among the top 10 states in the nation for volume of retail crime. Kansas lost approximately $642 million in stolen goods in 2021, he said.

“People are frustrated. Store employees are frustrated,” he said in an interview with CNN.

In Kansas, Kobach says one scourge is fueling another: drugs, especially fentanyl addiction.

“There is a link between drug trafficking and organized retail crime,” Kobach told lawmakers in June. “Organized retail crime is a problem that is getting worse, not better. And it does not exist in a vacuum. These criminal enterprises often overlap with the trafficking of drugs.”

National chains, local theft

Wichita police chief Joe Sullivan, who heads up the largest police department in Kansas, in April provided some startling numbers on escalating retail crime in Kansas’ largest city, which is home to nearly 400,000 residents. Speaking at an event with the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners, Sullivan said stores of some popular retail chains in Wichita are among the worst hit, nationally, by retail theft.

“We talked to some of our largest retailers, and within those chains, some of their stores in Wichita are their biggest problems,” Sullivan said during the meeting. “These are national chains, and some of these stores in Wichita have the highest rates for retail theft either regionally or nationally.”

A Victoria’s Secret store in Wichita, he said, was losing tens of thousands of dollars a month to theft. Worse, Sullivan said Cabela’s, which sells sporting goods and outdoor products, cited its Wichita store as number one in the nation among its stores for theft.

Victoria’s Secret did not provide a comment specifically addressing theft at its Wichita store but said in a statement to CNN that “the safety of our associates and customers is always our top priority. We take matters of theft seriously and work closely and in cooperation with the appropriate authorities on these types of investigations. We will prosecute shoplifters to the full extent of the law.”

Cabela’s did not respond to a request for comment. Sullivan’s office also cited Dick’s Sporting Goods and Academy Sports and Outdoors stores in the city as leading in the region for store thefts. Both retailers did not respond to requests for comment.

Lego sets, power tools, clothing, jewelry

Retail crime overall, Slaughter said, is up 34% so far this year in Wichita, compared to last year, and up 35% versus a five-year average.

Among the most stolen items reported by retailers, Slaughter said, are high-priced clothing, Lego sets, jewelry, footwear, beauty and cosmetic products, sporting goods, power tools, and Tide detergent, which is typically cited as one of the most shoplifted items nationally.

Because most retailers have a non-intervention policy in place to protect employees and shoppers, he said thieves are taking advantage and “basically taking anything that can be quickly carried out of the store.”

The stolen merchandise frequently ends up in online marketplaces or smaller neighborhood stores where it’s sold for a quick profit, Slaughter said.

Nationally, merchandise “shrink,” or the value of merchandise lost to theft, fraud, damage and other reasons, is estimated to have cost retailers $94.5 billion in 2021, up 4% from $90.8 billion in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation, which attributed nearly half of the loss to large-scale theft.

Still, some groups have pushed back on concerns about retail theft, pointing out that consistent data can be hard to come by and that employee theft and other factors can play a role in missing inventories.

And one Walgreens executive earlier this year suggested perhaps that company had overstated the impact of retail theft.

On Tuesday, the retail industry got some fighting power to curb the sale of stolen and counterfeit items online when the bipartisan INFORM Act went into effect. The new law requires online marketplaces to collect, verify and disclose information – including bank account information, tax ID number and contact information – of third-party sellers of high-volume products, making it harder for sellers of counterfeit and stolen products to get away with it.

Drug addiction’s tight grip

In Wichita, Slaughter said many stores have hired off-duty police officers to boost security, but theft persists because in his view the root causes are equally difficult to quash.

“Drug addiction has gotten worse in the city,” he said. “Almost every time a suspect is caught, we find drug paraphernalia on the person. It’s shocking to us when we don’t find it.”

Fentanyl addiction is a particularly urgent problem in Kansas.

Kansas logged the nation’s second largest percentage increase in drug overdose deaths in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with most overdose deaths involving fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine or heroin.

In Sedgwick County, drug-associated deaths among residents increased by 91% from 2015 to 2020, according to county data.

Marc Bennett, district attorney of Sedgwick County, said the drug crisis is one reason why individuals, desperate to feed their addiction, are turning to crime, including being recruited by criminal enterprises behind large organized retail crime sprees. Organized retail crime offers criminals a business model of pure profit, “with no overhead, rent, product cost. It’s pure profit,” he said.

“There’s also a vulnerable population in and around Wichita that is unhoused or struggling with mental illness,” he said. “There’s an opportunity when people are desperate to be pulled into these criminal enterprises.”

Harold Casey is closely tracking the drug crisis in Wichita and across 29 counties in Kansas.

Casey is CEO of SACK (Substance Abuse Center of Kansas), a Wichita-based non-profit specializing in the prevention, treatment and case management of individuals affected by substance abuse. His organization works with 800 to 900 individuals a year in hospitals in Wichita and about 1,200 a year in Sedgwick County jails, as well as people in homeless shelters.

“Most of our clients are uninsured, unemployed and homeless,” he said.

Most worrisome to him is the increasing number of drug addiction cases among teenagers, he said. “In Wichita, we’re experiencing a lot of overdose deaths in teens,” said Casey. He explained that parents often cite a familiar pattern – their child connects with a dealer on social media and gets access to drugs.

“Fentanyl is becoming the drug of choice here because it’s cheap and more accessible,” he said, adding that 11% of SACK’S current cases involve fentanyl and 36% methamphetamine.

She’s 35, a mom, addicted and shoplifting from stores

Scott Poor, a Wichita-based criminal defense attorney, has a running caseload of clients involved in property theft. “It’s plenty of home burglary, breaking into a garage, self-storage units and store theft,” he said. “A bulk of the cases are drug-related property crime.”

He recalls one in particular, a current client.

“She’s a young lady in her early thirties, and she has a serious problem with fentanyl,” said Poor. His client last September was charged with shoplifting from a local ranch and home goods store on three consecutive days, each time stealing bulk cases of ammunition.

“She’s not into shooting sports. But she is an addict, deeply hooked on fentanyl. She’s a mom who has lost her kids to Children and Family Services.”

In mid-March, Poor says his client shoplifted from an Ulta Beauty store and a Victoria’s Secret store on the same day. “She stole $477.32 worth of products from Ulta and $322.59 of items from Victoria’s Secret,” said Poor. “They got her on video.”

Poor was with his client in court on Monday. She was sporting a black eye, he said.

With high-value store thefts, Poor said his clients committing the crime aren’t stealing basic necessities like bread and diapers. “They are going after items they can turn around quickly for some good money, like at pawn shops,” he said. “If it’s not drugs, then they need money to pay rent.”

Kobach, the state attorney general, told CNN he recently spoke with an employee at Walgreens who said she was upset about thieves repeatedly targeting her store. “She violated company policy by following them and trying to stop them, but it was because she doesn’t want the store or the neighborhood to get a bad reputation,” he said.

In early June, Kobach testified before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on “Organized Retail Crime and the Threat to Public Safety.”

“When one thinks about the explosion of organized retail crime in the United States, the State of Kansas may not intuitively jump to mind,” he told lawmakers. “But Kansas is particularly illustrative for two reasons: Kansas is one of the hardest hit states, and we are attempting solutions that other states have not yet tried.”

One of the main reasons that organized retail crime is surging in Kansas is because many cases don’t get prosecuted, Kobach said in his testimony. “There is a shortage of prosecutors in most counties.”

The other challenge is that serial thieves “almost always steal a dollar amount just below the felony theft level,” he testified. “In Kansas, they steal roughly $900 to stay below the $1,000 threshold.”

But a new Kansas law set to take effect on July 1 would give the state AG more authority to prosecute organized retail theft rings. He said the law would make Kansas the first state in the nation to give the state AG’s office original prosecutorial authority in all cases where a course of criminal conduct occurs in two or more counties.

“This allows my prosecutors to prosecute cases with state resources where a county or district attorney does not have the capacity,” he explained in his testimony.

“The more we tolerate this form of crime, the more it will degrade our culture,” said Kobach. “That’s not the kind of society we want to live in.”