“Abuse of Soft-on-Crime Policies”: Subcommittee Chairman Pfluger Delivers Opening Statement in Hearing on Rise in Organized Retail Crime
December 12, 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, and Intelligence Chairman August Pfluger (R-TX) delivered the following opening statement in a hearing to evaluate a reported uptick in organized retail crime in the United States. Watch the full hearing here.
As prepared for delivery:
Good afternoon, we welcome everyone to today’s important hearing on organized retail crime and threats to our public safety. The topic of today’s hearing is the issue of organized retail crime, which has been rising throughout the country, demonstrating a threat to tens of thousands of retailers of all sizes and subjecting employees and customers to real harm.
As many Americans flock to stores to complete their holiday shopping this Christmas season, large organizations of professional shoplifters, or boosters, are exploiting soft-on-crime policies to ransack American businesses and carry out an unprecedented spike in retail crime.
Generally, organized retail crime involves the association of two or more persons engaged in illegally obtaining merchandise of value from retail establishments, through theft and/or fraud, as part of a criminal enterprise. This is not the same thing as shoplifting or petty theft, both of which are also illegal. This type of organized activity involves multiple occurrences and may transpire across various stores and state jurisdictions, further complicating matters for law enforcement agencies to combat these crimes.
We also have reports that transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that are taking advantage of our open borders are also engaging in retail theft. It is also important to note that these criminals do not show any bias when selecting targets and this crime occurs across a wide spectrum—from big cities to small towns in both urban and rural areas.
It has been said that organized retail crime is overblown. That is false. We cannot remain oblivious to the surge in organized retail crime throughout the country impacting every one of our districts.
As many of us have seen, retailers are not overhyping the threats or challenges posed by this criminal activity. They are taking steps to ensure the safety of their staff, customers, and products. This includes measures like placing common items like detergent and baby formula behind anti-theft plexiglass and utilizing “smart” shopping carts equipped with automatically locking wheels to prevent thieves from exiting the store with the cart without paying.
In Washington, D.C., where the progressive City Council has implemented soft-on-crime legislation that has emboldened criminals to run rampant through the District, one CVS has resorted to displaying tissue paper and rolls of toilet paper as photographs to prevent theft. In situations like this, we must look at the immediate impact on families and consumers. This, right here, directly drives away a mother looking to buy diapers and formula at her neighborhood CVS or a family looking to quickly grab over the counter medication for a loved one. These chaotic, calculated robberies not only pose a risk to the employees, customers, and store owners, but there is a multifaceted domino effect on our communities, as well as the workload of our law enforcement.
The National Retail Federation, which will be participating on the second panel, surveyed over 230 retail asset protection professionals and found that 90 percent indicated that organized retail crime is more of a risk to retail businesses now than it was three years ago.
Businesses of all sizes, from big box stores like Home Depot, Macy’s, Gap, Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreens, and others, to mom-and-pop shops like Eggemeyer’s General Store in my hometown of San Angelo, Texas—are worried about these alarming trends and are sounding the alarm on the rise of criminal activity tied to them.
In addition to widespread theft, some of these cases have turned deadly. Just last week, a security guard at a Macy’s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was fatally stabbed by a man attempting to steal merchandise. A second security guard was also injured. According to reports, the suspect, who was later arrested, has a history of retail theft, robbery, and drug offenses across the Philadelphia region. Moreover, at this Macy’s location alone, they filed over 250 reports of retail theft this year.
Then, last year, at a Home Depot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, an elderly employee of Home Depot, Gary Rasor, was assaulted by a man attempting to steal power washers. According to reports, Mr. Rasor, who was 82 years old, was violently shoved during the attempted theft and he later died of his injuries.
Sadly, these incidents are not isolated, and similar tragedies have occurred across the country, notwithstanding that violence tied to organized retail crime has resulted in damage to storefronts and other property.
Organized retail crime is also responsible for financial losses to retailers. As a result, retailers have begun closing stores in certain locations, which also creates a negative impact on the communities that they serve, and kills jobs for thousands of Americans. According to a report by the Retail Industry Leaders Association on the impact of organized retail crime, nearly $70 billion worth of goods was stolen from American retailers in 2019.
On a micro-level, Walmart has stated that it loses nearly $3 billion per year in U.S. revenue due to theft. The severity of large-scale theft and other factors has led Walmart to close several stores and raise prices nationwide.
Reports also indicate that Walmart plans to open a police “workspace” within one of its Atlanta stores, a recent drastic measure aimed at mitigating criminal activities. Target recently announced it would be closing nine stores across four cities—New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland—due to concerns about employee and customer safety from violence tied to organized retail crime.
Part of the challenge in addressing organized retail crime involves high felony theft thresholds and bail reform laws that have emboldened criminals to participate in organized retail crime. Criminals often pilfer items below the threshold for felony charges, recognizing that such offenses are typically not subject to prosecution in certain jurisdictions. Criminals also know that they will be released under certain weak bail reform laws. Upon release, these criminals proceed to engage in similar or more severe criminal activities without encountering any consequences.
I look forward to hearing from San Diego County District Attorney, Summer Stephan, who will also be the next President of the National District Attorney’s Association on the important role that prosecutors play in the safety of our communities, including addressing the challenge of organized retail crime. I also look forward to this hearing as an opportunity for bipartisanship, and hopefully we can all agree that there is a real issue here.
This surge in retail theft is more than just teenagers looking for a thrill, but an abuse of soft on crime policies and evidence of a deeper-rooted issue, driving crime and fear amongst our communities. We have a distinguished panel of witnesses testifying today, including a federal panel of witnesses to examine efforts to combat the rising trend of organized retail crime. We will also hear from a second panel of witnesses from industry and state government about their perspective on this serious challenge.
Thank you to all our witnesses for being with us this afternoon, and I look forward to our discussion.