I accompanied my wife into a neighborhood pharmacy and convenience store, one of many such stores belonging to a popular chain across the city, as she wanted to buy a pint of ice cream.

I tried to open the freezer door where the ice cream was stored, but it would not open. Surprised that the door was locked, I saw a red button that instructed one to press for customer service to come and unlock the freezer’s door. 

I can certainly understand why some items must be placed under lock and key due to shoplifters, such as expensive cologne and perfume. But ice cream?

A store manager came over and unlocked the freezer door and allowed us to extract the ice cream we wanted. I asked her why the ice cream was locked up and she replied that a particular person regularly came into the store and stole all of the ice cream containers. So the store locked the freezer and inconvenienced customers and store workers to thwart one serial shoplifter.

That’s crazy, I said. Can’t you call the police when you see your serial ice cream shoplifter?

No, she said. She was told that the shoplifter must steal $1,000 worth of items before the police can arrest him. And she said that the store’s employees were instructed not to impede the shoplifters or touch them in any way. If they do, they will be fired. I assume the store would rather lose pints of ice cream than lawsuits. 

So, this particular serial shoplifter wandered happily into the store periodically, grabbed all of the ice cream containers, and simply strolled out.  

I suggested, somewhat in jest, that the store ought to place a $975 piece of jewelry in an empty ice cream container so when the shoplifter grabbed his armful share of ice cream containers, the items’ value would exceed the $1,000 threshold and he could be arrested and prosecuted. The manager laughed and shook her head. 

The corporate solution here and across the country is to place certain items behind locked doors and have a store employee respond to the call to unlock the freezer or cabinet for legitimate customers. The store then passes on the jacked-up price of the items to the hapless customer to cover the employees’ additional duty. 

So why aren’t serial shoplifters being prosecuted?

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s policy regarding prosecution of retail theft and certain other crimes were put in place in 2018 by District Attorney Larry Krasner in an effort, as the policy statement notes, “to end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing.” 

But, frankly, there is no such thing as “mass incarceration.” All suspects who are arrested, prosecuted and convicted are sentenced to prison individually. 

According to the DA’s retail theft policy:

  1. Charge and dispose of Retail Theft cases as summary offenses unless the value of the item (s) stolen in a particular case exceeds $500.00 or where the defendant has a very long history of theft and retail theft convictions. 
  2. You must seek supervisory approval to charge and dispose of retail theft cases at misdemeanor or felony levels. 
  3. Remember, that a summary conviction permits a sentence of 90 days incarceration, fines of up to $250, and full restitution. These penalties are sufficient to hold a retail thief accountable. 4. In all cases, seek full restitution.

Back in April, after Krasner and police officials were grilled by City Council members about the increase in shoplifting and wanted to know how the police and the DA were handling the cases, Krasner held a press conference at 40th and Lancaster Avenue.

Krasner spoke of his policy to treat most retail theft under $500 as a summary offense, the lowest possible charge. 

“Under the policy, which we have had since the beginning, people who have minimal contacts in terms of retail thefts and who take less than $500 are going to have their cases charged as a summary offense. A summary offense can put you in jail for 90 days,” Krasner said. “Once you hit your third contact, you are no longer going to be in the bucket that is oriented towards mercy. You are going to be in the bucket where we are going to charge you at the highest levels permitted by the statutes.”

But, as any cop will tell you, most arrests for retail theft are eventually downgraded by the DA’s office to summary offenses, and the summons are ignored routinely by the repeat offenders.

One cop told me he knew all of the repeat shoplifter offenders in his district, as do the store managers and small business owners, but he was unable to keep them locked up.

As many of the repeat shoplifter offenders are juveniles, homeless, alcohol or drug-addicted, or mentally ill, another cop told me that it is easier for the corporate store owners, the police, the prosecutors, and the court to turn a blind eye to the blatant retail thefts.

Yet, these thefts are causing some small businesses to go out of business and causing some of the corporate chain stores to pack up and move to another location where they are less likely to be hit by repeat offenders.    

The serial shoplifters, especially the huge gangs of “smash and grab” shoplifters, do not fear the police, the DA, or the courts. They think it is all a joke and they can be viewed on security footage laughing as they bolt from the store with their stolen items. These serial shoplifters love their license to steal.

All of the cops, the store managers and the small business owners that I’ve spoken to say it is high time for the Philadelphia District Attorney to crack down on serial shoplifters and properly punish them. 

Paul Davis, a Philadelphia writer and frequent contributor to Broad + Liberty, also contributes to Counterterrorism magazine and writes the On Crime column for the Washington Times. He can be reached via www.pauldavisoncrime.com.

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