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Kirk LaPointe: The constancy of casual theft is a concern that can’t be ignored

Shoplifting seems to be in vogue as some sort of new vandalism, says Kirk LaPointe
With a year under the belts of the ABC civic administration in Vancouver, retailers aren’t discerning changes in the city in conditions that were key in sinking its predecessors, writes Kirk LaPointe

A conversation a couple of weeks ago with a seatmate on a plane returning to Vancouver shed light on the delicate protocol he faces with shoplifters in his prominent retail outlet.

“You can’t touch them,” he said. “You try to block the exit, but they will stare into your eyes and just walk around you, and they know they can just get out the door, and nobody will stop them.”

He added: “I feel for their situations. And I am helpless.”

Shoplifting seems to be in vogue as some sort of new vandalism – actually, it’s more like vandalism redux – of the Vancouver retail scene, thanks to the combination of intensifying financial difficulties, mental health challenges, substance abuse and a system that punishes offenders with a very light touch.

One shopkeeper in Gastown posed a question about vandals along the lines of: Why go to the trouble to break windows at night when you can walk out with merchandise in the day?

A rumour surfaced last week that the venerable London Drugs chain was going to close the flagship outlet at Granville and West Georgia. City coun. Peter Meiszner, a former journalist, posted a tweet on X to that effect, then dialed it back when the company sternly said that wouldn’t happen.

That being said, the president and COO of the chain, Clint Mahlman, used the opportunity to illuminate the impact, both economic and social. His was an impressive argument for the imperative of attention at all levels of government in all places, because shoplifting is one of those silent killers of not only business but of the fabric of work and the intrinsic expectation of daily safety on the job.

He was ready with a classic zinger when the CityNews camera approached: “If an MP, an MLA, a city councillor, a Crown prosecutor, a judge, had people coming into their offices, defecating in a corner, stealing things from their office, threatening or abusing their staff, stabbing them, hitting them, spitting on them, then I’d feel pretty confident that things would have changed by now.”

Bang on.

With a year under the belts of the ABC civic administration in Vancouver, retailers aren’t discerning changes in the city in conditions that were key in sinking its predecessors. A three-week police crackdown on shoplifting earlier this year yielded loads of arrests, but the system to charge and convict proved not up to the task of subduing the nonchalant repeat offenders. Any sentences rendered were mere interruptions for a day or so of the shoplifter’s spree.

In so many cases, Crown counsel’s two-pronged standards to assess the likelihood of convictions and the public interest value of seeking them outweigh even clear evidence of brazen stealing.

Meanwhile, the constancy of casual theft – often now a form of organized crime, targeting goods that can be resold at times in open-air markets or across the internet – is taking “tens of millions” from Mahlman’s chain.

There is no question this ought to be our priority as our commercial districts deal with the various whammies of online shopping competition, labour shortages, diminished street traffic due to remote work, and expensive leases. The vexing question is how. The best estimate is that it adds about two or three per cent to prices.

The underlying issues of shoplifting aren’t addressed with police walking the retail districts or security guards in the stores – although that doesn’t hurt. We are getting past the days of effective cameras and mirrors as deterrents. The challenged business models of stores don’t make it easy to acknowledge each person coming in, and limited space in some stores can make it difficult to keep the so-called “hot items” far from the exit.

As with other social challenges, we appear to be treating the symptoms because authorities have surrendered to the causes beyond their grasps, so bail reforms are pending that some believe will help deal authorities deal with the chronic offenders.

But even if London Drugs is saying store closures aren’t coming, I will understand if it chooses to send a message to governments that any solutions travel through them, across their desks and into their chambers and legislatures.

This matter goes beyond the support of business; it is a critical issue of the human condition that expects to be free of violation and harm each day one comes to work. If you can’t guarantee that, then what is left of the covenant of employment?

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.