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Asserting that “organized retail crime” is a driver of violence across the city, the state attorney general and the Albuquerque Police Department are vowing to crack down on people they say are targeting big box stores on a regular basis.
“This is not about teenage delinquencies,” said Attorney General Hector Balderas at a news conference on Tuesday. “This is about a very profitable industry that is now funneling and fueling other criminal activity, like human trafficking and gang activity. The most violent criminals in the country now understand that this can be a very profitable business to invest in other criminal activity in the state of New Mexico.”
Balderas’ office did not provide statistics on how much merchandise has been reported stolen.
A Journal news report in May quoted local police as saying shoplifters have become more brazen in recent years and are more likely to be armed or violent.
In terms of “organized retail crime,” Balderas said his office has convicted pawn shop employees who were directing people to steal items so they could sell them at the store. He also cited the case of a business owner who had rented out a piece of equipment only to learn it was being sold to a third party at a much lower cost.
In an effort to combat these crimes Balderas said his office is “putting our best prosecutors on these types of cases,” partnering and improving communication with field officers and working with the corporations that are seeing these losses.
He is also advocating for lawmakers to pass legislation he says has been killed over the past couple of years.
“The organized retail criminal act needs to be passed in the New Mexico Legislature,” Balderas said. “The level of violence in the city of Albuquerque and state of New Mexico is too high. But more importantly, we as law enforcement and prosecutors across the spectrum need to work better in terms of making sure that these cases don’t fall through the cracks and it should be a public safety strategy for the New Mexican Legislature moving forward.”
Balderas’ spokesman did not provide a drafted bill but said he was referring to part of a package of legislation that came out of the governor’s anti-domestic terrorism legislation. He said it has yet to be introduced.
Police Chief Harold Medina pointed out that it is a misdemeanor to shoplift under $500, and said a proposal change would allow a person to face a felony charge if they shoplift from multiple stores or as part of a group.
“Sometimes they may not hit that one felony at that one location,” Medina said. “We have to look at their group activity and be able to prosecute it as their overall impact on the industry of retail within the city of Albuquerque, and how we’re going to address those kinds of organized groups with stiffer penalties, rather than just that misdemeanor.”
Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said he thinks existing laws could be used to prosecute those who are running organized crime operations.
“We understand the enormous frustration surrounding shoplifting and property theft,” Baur wrote in a statement. “The vast majority of the shoplifting cases we see are individuals driven by drug addiction, and racketeering and conspiracy can currently be prosecuted in appropriate cases. We look forward to discussing specific proposals for legislative and community action.”
Matt Cramer, the district manager for Home Depot, said among the six stores in the area – including one in Los Lunas and one in Rio Rancho – merchandise is stolen multiple times a day. He said he’s noticed an uptick in frequency since the pandemic and the most popular items for people to steal are drills and batteries.
“We’re not looking for somebody who steals a $100 drill and there’s no violence,” Cramer said. “That’s the cost of doing business. We’re talking about these thieves that scheme, that are in a big organized group that fund larger things.”
Medina and Mayor Tim Keller emphasized that APD will use new technology – like live streaming video from retailers to the Real Time Crime Center – to investigate the crimes and aid prosecution.
“It’s part of our general technology platform upgrade that we’ve been doing,” Keller said. “We’re about $20 million plus into that and all of that should be done in the winter of this year.”
Medina also mentioned putting license plate readers in retail parking lots to alert officers if a stolen motor vehicle has entered the premises.
“We’re not always going to have officers who get there in time to be able to take an individual into custody, a lot of times these individuals are going to dart out the front door and be gone before we even are able to dispatch the call …,” he said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to build the case off of the evidence that we have at the scene and through these partnerships, we’re hoping that we get more evidence because we have better access to the technology that the mayor mentioned earlier.”
Medina said “a lot of our property crime offenders are just short (of) becoming violent criminals.”
“We see this over and over again in the shoplifting industry where security goes to take an individual into custody and it becomes a violent conflict or altercation,” Medina said. “This is where we need enhanced penalties and there needs to be legislative changes for us to give our prosecutors and our law enforcement officials the tools to hold those individuals accountable.”
However Jonathan Ibarra, the vice president for the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said in the vast majority of cases there is no violence and “treating everyone like a violent criminal doesn’t make any sense.”
“I think if they want to prosecute these cases – and they should – then they already have the tools to do that,” Ibarra said. “They just need to use the tools that are there.”