Eight Anchorage police officers spent a day inside one of the city's larger retail stores this month patrolling for shoplifters.
Over eight hours on Dec. 1, police arrested six people at a Fred Meyer store on Abbott Road. Police say the six separately tried to steal more than $1,100 of merchandise in all.
It was the first instance of Anchorage police teaming up with a retail store with the goal of catching shoplifters in action. The initiative reflected broad frustration among local retailers about what's been characterized as a sharp rise in property crime in the past two years. Dozens of new officers have been hired in recent years, which allows police to dedicate more time to proactive policing, said Capt. Kevin Vandegriff, who leads the department's crime suppression unit.
But Vandegriff said police had also been hearing reports from private security groups around the city that thefts were coming more often with the threat of violence.
Vandegriff didn't have specific data to corroborate the claims, and research by the University of Alaska Anchorage has shown that the rates of larceny and violent crime have declined in Anchorage over the past 30 years. Research tied to Alaska's criminal justice reform has shown that putting people in jail for short periods of time for shoplifting isn't an effective deterrent, and some cities, like Juneau, are working on programs that target the deeper issues that might motivate theft, like addiction or mental illness.
But some of the stories were frightening, Vandegriff said: People caught pushing carts of stolen goods out of stores had drawn guns or knives on employees.
Major retailers employ security guards known as "loss prevention officers" to patrol stores or watch front entrances for shoplifting. If a person is caught shoplifting, those charges go directly to local and state prosecutors.
If the accused thief threatens to use violence, store employees contact police, Vandegriff said. But it often takes a long time for an officer to show up, Vandegriff said. By then, suspects can be long gone.
Fred Meyer had worked with law enforcement in other states on similar shoplifting stings. Jeffery Temple, a Portland-based director of corporate affairs for Fred Meyer, said customers in Alaska had been reaching out to store officials with concerns about theft and violent crime.
Temple said the retailer already had a good relationship with the police department, and APD broached the idea of a "retail blitz." He declined to share internal policies around shoplifting or specific incident reports documented at stores, but said his company was motivated by feedback from shoppers.
"Our customers are reaching out to us and saying, 'We expect you to do something about this,' " Temple said.
The day of the sting, the eight members of a new investigative unit in APD arrived at the store, some in uniform and some in plain clothes.
Police spokesman MJ Thim said officers stopped Patricia Abell from pushing a cart with about $550 worth of goods out of the store.
Abell now faces felony theft charges and another charge associated with carrying burglary tools.
She also had a gun with her, leading to a weapons charge. She also had two warrants related to prior low-level theft charges, according to police.
Abell, 40, was being held at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center while awaiting her next court date.
Another man, William Rosario Jr., 36, was accused of taking close to $150 of goods from the store. He ran away when police and store officers stopped him.
After a pursuit, APD arrested Rosario. Thim said he'll face charges of theft, resisting arrest and giving false information, and his arrest also included a federal drug-related warrant.
Rosario was cited and released, records show. According to city prosecutor Seneca Theno, Rosario is scheduled to appear for the first time in court on Jan. 4, more than a month after the incident. Formal charges had not been filed as of Wednesday.
Vandegriff said the goal was to send a message to people who shoplift and use weapons.
"There's always going to be some level of theft, but if you're going to bring a knife or a gun and place other people at risk, we're going to try and take whatever measures we can to stop that," Vandegriff said.
APD plans to conduct similar stings in the future, Vandegriff said. He said he expects to work with stores that already employ loss prevention officers, but it may be possible to work with smaller businesses.
He said it won't be possible to regularly station cops in every business to deter theft. But periodic initiatives like this one might make people think twice, Vandegriff said.
As for broader questions of addressing what motivates people to steal in the first place — like poverty or supporting a drug habit — Vandegriff said that's a broader community conversation, of which police play only one part.