Now that liquor in Washington has left the relatively secure environment of small network of state stores to become part of the standard merchandise in virtually every grocery, drug and discount store in the state, it does not seem surprising that stories of liquor theft have become commonplace.
Police agencies and some merchants say high-value bottles of booze have become the new targets of organized gangs of thieves and petty criminals alike who have found new money-making opportunities in liquor resales.
The number of stores selling spirits has increased five-fold since liquor sales were privatized June 1, The security efforts employed by those merchants range from strict to relaxed.
Some law enforcement agencies throughout the state, including the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, King County detectives, Vancouver and Spokane police and Kitsap County law enforcement officials, say they’re seeing an increase in reported liquor thefts as spirits have become more widely available.
“Law enforcement continues to feel the impact of privatization of liquor sales in our state,” Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts recently told a state Senate committee.
“Most concerning is the risk to our youth, who now have even greater access to hard alcohol replacing consumption of lower alcoholic beverages like beer,” he testified.
In some stores, particularly those near freeways that provide thieves a quick getaway, or in crime-prone neighborhoods, organized gangs of wholesale shoplifters have added liquor to their preferred theft targets of baby formula, batteries, wine and razor blades, according to law officials.
Those organized group members typically enter a store within a few minutes of each other, establish sentries to watch for store personnel and communicate by cell phones to members who pilfer the liquor shelves of as much as a shopping cart full of spirits at once.
Other members may create diversions to occupy store personnel while their partners wheel their loot out the front door and into a waiting van.
Those gangs reportedly offer to sell their liquor to friends and even to bars, restaurants and retail stores at discount prices. Smaller quantities of liquor disappear in much smaller quantities at the hands of petty thieves who slip a bottle or two under their coats.
Law enforcement has became so concerned that the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs recently wrote the Washington Liquor Control Board asking the board to create a rule requiring spirits retailers to periodically report their theft losses.
Ed Holmes, Mercer Island police chief and association president, told the board that many of the liquor retailers aren’t properly equipped to secure their liquor stocks.
“As a result, we believe significant amounts of spirits are being diverted from legitimate sales and make their way into the community,” he wrote the board.
The result is sales of liquor to youths and creation of an untaxed black market for liquor, he contended.
The liquor board now has published a notice of proposed rulemaking and has set a series of hearings for early next year to consider adopting a reporting requirement for liquor retailers, said liquor board spokesman Mikhail Carpenter.
That rulemaking proposal is being driven by the association’s request and media reports of growing thefts, said the board spokesman.
RETAILERS HAVE DIFFERENT VIEW OF PROPOSAL
But while law enforcement is pushing for more information, liquor retailers large and small say they intend to lobby against the proposed rule.
They see it as creating more expense for them in a business already burdened by huge taxes and fees.
Joe Gilliam, Northwest Grocery Association president, said the grocers will oppose the proposed rule.
The increased reporting requirements and paperwork, he said, will have dubious value in addressing the problems that may exist.
Retailers already have a strong economic incentive to plug holes in their security systems because thefts directly affect their bottom lines.
“We work daily in cooperation with law enforcement to target thieves and improve our security,” he said. “We are the first ones to take action when we see our inventories declining.”
Retailers say there is nothing new to the criminals’ methods.
Those same gangs have simply added another product to their repertoire of theft targets, Gilliam said. Those gangs also steal other high-value products such as razor blades, baby formula and batteries.
Stores that have already stiffened security, he said, Many lock up liquor or put it behind the customer service counter with cigarettes or other commonly stolen items.
Jas Sangha, interim president of a new organization representing the new owners of former state liquor stores, said the new reporting requirements would only add to the already onerous rules those small business retailers must handle. New paperwork requirements won’t help.
Darren Smith, a liquor store owner in Lacey, said the former state stores have issues, but theft isn’t one of them.
Those store owner say their stores are small enough that they can watch customers easily, and their cash registers are close to the doors to control who exits and when.
David Cho, owner of former state liquor stores in Tacoma and Port Orchard, said his stores lose little if any liquor to thieves. “I don’t think it’s useful to spend hours doing extra inventories if the information won’t help us cut thefts,” he said.
Mike Hargreaves, co-owner of Tacoma’s Stadium Thriftway, said he too opposes more reporting requirements. Thefts at his store have been minimal because of the way he set up his spirits section.
All of the liquor can be locked down to prevent thefts when his beverage manager isn’t physically present in the section where the liquor is shelved. Nighttime customers can request a clerk to open a case if they want to buy liquor at night.
“I’m not sure that filling out more reports will do anything to cut thefts,” he said.
SOME STORES ALREADY OFFER TIGHT SECURITY AS DEBATE CONTINUES
Mitch Barker, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs executive director, defended the request for more reports.
The organization is simply seeking information that most businesses would acquire in the ordinary course of business, he said. “They must do inventories from time to time to find out what they need to order.”
“Without those reports, we don’t have any good idea how big the problem is and where it may be localized,” he said.
Some big chain stores have already taken steps in urban neighborhood stores to ensure thefts are minimized. Safeway, for instance, after meeting with neighborhood groups, put all of the liquor in its Tacoma Hilltop store in locked cabinets at the store’s front near the cash registers.
The grocers association’s Gilliam said the anecdotal reports for liquor thefts may give a false picture of the big picture.
“We’re not hearing consistent reports of big losses,” he said.
The sheriff and police chief’s association’s Barker said all thefts aren’t necessarily the result of shoplifters.
“We’ve heard but not confirmed reports of some merchants offering to sell liquor directly to bars and restaurants outside the normal retail sales channels to avoid the fees and taxes imposed by the state,” he said.
The state charges retailers a 17 percent fee on retail sales.John Gillie: 253-597-8663 email@example.com