Organized Crime Boosts Sci-Fi Shoplifting, Shutting Down 17 Walgreens in Five Years

For years, John Susoeff walked from his home two blocks to the Walgreens on Bush and Larkin streets – to take prescriptions for himself and for less mobile neighbors, to get a new phone card and to get discounts for seniors on the first Tuesday of the month.

That changed in March when the shoplifting-ravaged Walgreens closed. Susoeff, 77, who occasionally uses a cane, now goes six blocks for medicine and other necessities.

“It’s terrible,” he said. On his last visit before the store closed, even the beef jerky was behind the lock and key. A Nearby CVS closed in 2019, with similar reports of rampant shoplifting.

“I don’t blame them for the shutdown,” Susoeff said.

Last year, burglaries increased in most areas of San Francisco. Shoplifting declined under the pandemic lockdown and declined slightly the year before, but incidents are often underreported and have become more violent and brazen, police said.

Retailers attribute the majority of losses to professional thieves rather than opportunistic shoplifters, who can be driven by poverty, a CVS executive calling San Francisco a hub for organized crime in the retail industry. The losses have closed pharmacies providing life-saving services, which is even more critical during the pandemic as some stores distribute vaccines.

“It got out of hand,” said supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who held a hearing Thursday with retailers, police, the district attorney and probation services. “People are afraid to go to these stores, the elderly, the disabled, the children. This is happening brazenly. We can’t just, as a city, put our hand up and say it’s okay. We have to find solutions. “

The cost of doing business and shoplifting has led Walgreens to shut down 17 locations in San Francisco over the past five years – an “unpopular and difficult decision” – said Jason Cunningham, regional vice president of pharmacy operations and retailers in California and Hawaii at the hearing. The company still has 53 stores in the city.

Theft from Walgreens stores in San Francisco is four times the average for stores elsewhere in the country, and the chain spends 35 times more on security guards in the city than elsewhere, Cunningham said.

At CVS, 42% of the losses in the Bay Area came from 12 stores in San Francisco, which account for just 8% of the market share, said Brendan Dugan, director of retail organized crime and business investigations during of the audience.

CVS and Walgreens said they are training employees to be involved and visible to prevent theft, but not to confront thieves directly when it could turn violent. CVS security guards in San Francisco have been assaulted on a regular basis, particularly at the location of Seventh and Market streets which is now closed, Dugan said. Some companies hire expensive off-duty police officers instead.

Although the majority of CVS shoplifting incidents in the city are by opportunists, Dugan said, professional crime accounts for 85% of the company’s dollar losses.

He said San Francisco was one of the “epicenters” of organized crime in the retail sector, pointing to a $ 8 Million State Bust in the Bay Area Last year.

Officials agreed that different answers were needed depending on why someone was committing a crime. San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Doug Welch called for the hearing to say that his shoplifting customers were not part of organized crime, but were homeless or struggling with drug addiction and needed more services.

The San Francisco Police Burglary Unit is focused on investigating serial shoplifters, especially if they are violent, police said. Defeat officers patrolling known areas of shoplifting Last year, about 31% of shoplifting incidents resulted in arrests, a percentage that has declined in the past two years, according to the police.

A Safeway statement read at Thursday’s hearing blamed the Prop. 47, which reduced penalties for thefts under $ 950, for “dramatic increases” in shoplifting losses. Safaí said he was proud of the Prop. 47 and that he supported criminal justice reform and rehabilitation, but also called for organized crime prosecutions and more community ambassadors to prevent opportunistic shoplifting.

Professional shoplifters can operate the system by stealing items below a store’s doorstep and then striking several on the same day. To prosecute, the district attorney pursued global charges for several petty thefts by the same person, such as a recent case of stolen scooters. Police said a suspect could also be charged with possession of stolen property valued at over $ 950.

As authorities attempt to stave off crime, San Franciscans suffer from store closures. Residents attempted to save the Walgreens in Bush and Larkin in March, circulate a petition signed by a few hundred and arguing that the nearest store was not accessible to people with disabilities.

“It has become a lifeline for many seniors, people with disabilities and low-income residents who cannot go further to other stores to get what they need,” the petition says.

The store closed anyway.

Mallory Moench is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @mallorymoench

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