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VIEWPOINT: Delaware’s theft epidemic: A silent economic killer

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Crime — burglary, robbery, vandalism, shoplifting, employee theft, and fraud — costs businesses billions of dollars each year. Crime can be particularly devastating to small businesses, who lose both customers and employees when crime and fear claim a neighborhood. When small businesses are victims of crime, they often react by changing their hours of operation, raising their prices to cover their losses, relocating outside the community, or simply closing. Fear of crime isolates businesses, much like fear isolates individuals — and this isolation increases vulnerability to crime.

Kathleen Rutherford | PHOTO COURTESY OF A BETTER DELAWARE

The success of small businesses in Delaware is vital to a vibrant economy. Small businesses serve the needs of the overall workforce, and any detrimental impacts on small business will affect the economy and consumers. Taxes and regulations are the most obvious issues that impact our businesses, but crime is a significant factor that is often overlooked.

Property crime includes theft, shoplifting, and motor vehicle theft. Every year in Delaware since 2015, the rate of property crime per 100,000 residents was higher than the national average. In 2019 the property crime rate for Delaware was 2.35 per 100,000 residents, while the national rate was 2.1.  When businesses and/or families consider relocating, the “perception” of crime is as important as the actual crime rate. Theft, which includes shoplifting, is the most reported property crime in Delaware, accounting for 78% of all major non-violent crimes in the state in 2020.

For businesses, burglary, theft, and shoplifting are of primary significance. Nationally, commercial burglaries in 2019 accounted for 32% of all burglaries reported. In 2019, shoplifting accounted for 6,016 of the 18,085 thefts reported in Delaware. Shoplifting is a major contributor to the crime problem for businesses. While Delaware law enforcement is performing above the national averages of clearance rates, we remain at a higher rate of property crimes than the nation.

The most efficient way to reduce the crime rate is to prevent it from occurring. Burglary is a preventable crime in most cases. Alarm systems and surveillance equipment are optimal, but “good old fashioned” security is still important. Many burglars have told arresting police officers that they always chose a target that was easier to enter than others in the area. If doors are locked with adequate locking devices, windows secured properly, and a commercial space is visible from outside, burglars will often seek a different target.

Motor vehicle thefts have decreased over the years as built-in security systems have become more common in vehicles. Unfortunately, many people continue to leave their cars unlocked, leading to theft of the car itself, or items inside the car. It is a common practice for thieves to walk down residential streets or through parking lots and enter unlocked vehicles to steal items from inside.

Shoplifting has been a scourge for businesses for many years, and a crime that shows no signs of eradication. There are organized groups of criminals who participate in planned shoplifting operations. Many police agencies today assign officers specifically to units that focus on organized criminal shoplifting groups. The National Retail Federation reports that retail crime is costing businesses more than $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales.

The Attorney General’s office, law enforcement and industry organizations working together to educate business owners and employees on prevention techniques by:

  • Restoring the pre-pandemic dedicated retail crime unit within the state police, assigned to exclusively to work on organized retail crime (ORC).
  • Ensuring the legislated dedicated attorney general retail prosecutor is named and assigned workload exclusive to organized retail crime. At monthly in-person meeting with industry businesses, must discuss actions, results, and recommendations to reduce retail crime.
  • Re-establish the monthly in-person meeting with businesses loss prevention, attorney general retail prosecutor, state police ORC task force, court calendar administrator, chambers, and industry groups.
  • Further develop and coordinate technology for mass communication between retailers and detectives for rapid response.
  • Communicate effective enforcement of civil recovery judgments by the courts and collection agencies to offset retailers cost of theft.
  • Holding an annual loss prevention conference including national and regional loss prevention professionals, members of the public, legislators, and other impacted groups with a publicly available annual report of crime issues facing Delaware businesses.

Industry experts attribute the continued rate of shoplifting offenses to reduced staffing at businesses. Michael Quaranta, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, has said “with fewer eyes on would be thieves, that’s only served to embolden those intent on shoplifting”. Quaranta suggested that secured product displays and technology are increasingly depended upon to prevent or detect shoplifting. Fear of violence against employees has also resulted in some businesses adopting policies prohibiting employees from confronting suspected thieves. With the realities facing Delaware, we must double-down on our efforts to communicate and coordinate with all stakeholders.

Kathleen Rutherford is executive director of A Better Delaware, a non-partisan public policy and political advocacy organization that supports pro-growth, pro-jobs policies and greater transparency and accountability in Delaware state government.

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