It’s been more than a year since law enforcement officials in New Mexico called for tougher penalties for the shoplifting rings behind major losses at retail stores.
The governor and the Legislature declined to consider a bill during this year’s short session that would have created the crime of organized retail crime and established thresholds for felony charges.
In hindsight, House Bill 29, sponsored by Reps. Bill Rehm and Stefani Lord, was a missed opportunity to shore up the efforts of law enforcement leaders.
In July 2021, the state Attorney General’s Office announced the creation of a statewide Organized Retail Crime Task Force targeting professional shoplifting operations. Joined by Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, Police Chief Harold Medina and a top executive from Home Depot, N.M. Attorney General Hector Balderas laid out the reality: “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 this can be a very profitable business to invest in other criminal activity in New Mexico.”
During that press conference, Balderas and Medina pressed lawmakers to take action.
“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.”
The task force — a partnership among law enforcement agencies and loss-prevention personnel in retail stores — has succeeded in taking down more than 100 serial shoplifters. But efforts to confront the problem keep expanding. On Wednesday, while announcing New Mexico’s participation in a 20-state network to gather data on organized retail crime, Balderas described the shifting criminal landscape.
“It is more profitable now to go and steal from our local retailers than it is to sell drugs and guns in New Mexico,” Balderas said, again flanked by Keller, Medina and other business and law enforcement leaders. “Organized retail criminals are at the very top of the food chain.”
Retail organized crime costs New Mexico $1 billion a year, Balderas said. It’s driving increased violence as serial shoplifters become more brazen and better organized. “Any one of our retailers, in the middle of broad daylight, can turn into a crime scene,” he said. “We are talking about law enforcement being overwhelmed, employees being overwhelmed, and we’re talking about retailers being overwhelmed.”
The N.M. Chamber of Commerce is part of the New Mexico Organized Retail Crime Association, which now has access to the multistate Auror retail crime platform — an online network that allows retailers to share security video, cellphone images and other information with law enforcement.
While that’s certain to help nab criminals, Medina reiterated the need for more police officers and prosecutors and options for courts to punish retail thieves. “This is about a system that has limitations for every level,” Medina said. “Every single process needs to be reviewed, and we need to look and see how we’re going to fix it.”
Which brings us back to House Bill 29. It was endorsed by the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee in the summer of 2021 but wasn’t on the governor’s call for legislative action, and Rehm’s attempts to work it into an omnibus crime bill failed. If he prevails in the November election, he plans to reintroduce it.
Now, it’s a misdemeanor to shoplift under $500. The bill would allow prosecutors to “aggregate” the total value of merchandise stolen from retailers over the span of a year. If the aggregated value exceeds $500, defendants could be charged with fourth-, third- and second-degree felonies.
It’s time for lawmakers to give the bill a fair shake instead of ignoring/killing it as they have over the past couple of years. If law enforcement officials say they need help in the war on retail crime, lawmakers owe them — and the state’s many victims — the courtesy of a debate.
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.