Editorial: New laws are needed to support crackdown on ‘organized retail crime’ in Albuquerque

Albuquerque residents weary of in-your-face crime got some good news last week when Attorney General Hector Balderas, Mayor Tim Keller and Police Chief Harold Medina announced a new initiative to crack down on “organized retail crime” in which thieves and gangs of thieves target big box stores and other retailers.

It’s not your grandmother’s version of shoplifting we are talking about here. It’s brazen, it’s often orchestrated and it can become dangerous when store clerks or security personnel (or even an outraged bystander) attempt to confront someone who is hauling his or her ill-gotten merchandise out the front door.

A surveillance camera captured an armed shoplifter, left, struggling with a security guard during a robbery at the WalMart on Cerrillos Road.

One man, for example, earlier this year displayed a firearm and said, “I’m going to start blasting people,” as he was confronted for switching price tags at a self-checkout. The same man and a woman accomplice allegedly fired a weapon at employees of a Sam’s Club on Coors Bypass a month later.

Dangerous stuff.

Balderas put all this in the proper perspective at a news conference where he was joined by the mayor, chief and a top executive from Home Depot.

“This is about a very profitable industry that is now funneling and fueling other criminal activity, like human trafficking and gang activity,” Balderas said. “The most violent criminals in the country now understand this can be a very profitable business to invest in other criminal activity in New Mexico.”

State laws lack the necessary teeth. Medina pointed out that it is a misdemeanor to shoplift under $500 and says it would help if the Legislature would make it possible to file felony charges if a perpetrator steals 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….”

Balderas also said the Legislature needs to pass an organized retail crime statute – something Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham should put on her priority list – and the mayor should be willing to step up and say he will personally lobby the Legislature, where he served in the Senate, on these issues.

The public defender and criminal defense lawyers organization essentially say we have enough laws on the books already, and that the vast majority of shoplifting cases are individuals driven by drug addiction.

That’s not much consolation to store clerks or customers who line up to pay for their purchases and watch other people simply walk out the door with whatever they pulled off the shelves.

Or to the Home Depot executive who says we aren’t talking about somebody stealing a $100 drill. “We’re talking about these thieves that scheme, that are in big organized groups that fund larger things,” he said.

It’s important to do what can be done in the absence of new laws, and there were some specific proposals set out at last week’s news conference to do just that.

Keller says APD will use new technology that includes live streaming video from retailers to the Real Time Crime Center to aid in investigating and prosecuting the crimes. Medina mentioned putting license plate readers in retail parking lots to alert officers if a stolen 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…,” Medina said. “We’re hoping that we get more evidence because we have better access to the technology.”

Balderas said his office is “putting our best prosecutors on these types of cases.”

Make no mistake. This is dangerous stuff and the response by police and prosecutors – and lawmakers – needs to be quick and decisive.

“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 … to give our prosecutors and law enforcement officers the tools to hold those individuals accountable.”

And if we don’t do that, we essentially resign ourselves to the idea that we are OK with living in a lawless city where thieves can boldly and shamelessly take whatever they want with little fear of the consequences.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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