4 Investigates: The impact of retail crime

[anvplayer video=”5160785″ station=”998122″]

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Retail crime is a big business in New Mexico. You’ve probably noticed, shops are fighting back with secured product storage, security, and wheel-locking carts. But it’s not enough.

KOB 4 discovered some of the most vulnerable communities are being hit the hardest – not only impacting the cost at the register but the ability to find those necessities.

Walking is a big part of daily traffic in Albuquerque’s International District.

“It’s really a straight shot as the crow flies, but you have to zig-zag over there,” said Shane Young, a man who lives in southeast Albuquerque.

He walks from Zuni to San Pablo to Central, through, what he calls, some tough areas to pick up his necessities from his local Family Dollar.

“I mean the whole front of their store has got plywood now,” said Young. “Vandals just keep breaking their windows.”

Employees said crime is almost as expected as shoppers.

“We get robbed. We get threatened with guns, we get knives pulled out on us. Sometimes people threaten to stick us with their dirty needles. People just push us around if they can,” said an employee who didn’t want to be identified.

The problem is so bad, KOB 4 went back to the store a week later and saw a new sign on the door. Only one customer was allowed inside at a time.

“The other day me and my coworker were stopping these people and I got hit in the side of my face with something they threw at me and stuff,” said the employee.

New Mexico Chamber of Commerce President Rob Black said retail crime is more brazen and violent than ever.

Last year a suspected shoplifter told police she intentionally started fires inside the Walmart in Edgewood in order to create a diversion.  A haul, until stopped in the parking lot, that was supposed to feed a drug habit.

In Albuquerque, cameras caught an 18-year-old trying to steal ammunition at Cabela’s. It ended in a shootout in the parking lot, near the store entrance.

It’s destruction you don’t have to witness to see. In southeast Albuquerque, stores are investing heavily in property protection, covering almost every shelf in plastic, locked containers, limiting bag sizes, even adding wheel locks to shopping carts.

“The criminal elements in New Mexico are making more money off of retail crime than they were off of selling drugs,” said Black.

Ultimately, it’s costing businesses.

“There’s not one area of town that doesn’t have this issue,” said Albuquerque Police Investigative Services Division Commander Aaron Jones.

It’s costing shoppers – often those who can least afford it.

Police were called to the Walmart at San Mateo near Central more than 1,400 times for various calls in 2019. That’s almost four calls every day.

“That area has more people going to it then, let’s say somewhere that’s a couple miles west or a couple miles east, there’s not another box store like it in that area,” said Commander Jones.

Those calls were cut in half in 2022, APD said, with the help of targeted police operations.

But while those calls went down, calls to nearby businesses went up, at the Big Lots, and nearby Family Dollar. It’s taking a toll.

Big Lots closed and two area Family Dollar stores as well. That creates an entirely different problem for this community – even fewer places to get necessities.

The International District has 35 SNAP-accepted stores.

Nine of those are gas stations. Many are specialty or corner shops, and three of those stores have closed within the last year. Employees with two others told KOB 4 they could be next.

“We try every day to help save this store open, that’s why we come to work every day,” said the employee.

“It’s devastating because the only other options you have are these small mom-and-pop stores but I’ll only shop there if I have to because the prices are so high compared to everywhere else,” said Young.

We went shopping for milk, eggs, and bread. Customers will pay about $10 at Walmart. Shopping at the other stores will cost you around $2 more for just those three items. We’re talking limited grocery selection, and in some places there was no selection.

“Once a month I’ll buy some groceries at Walmart. But you know, that’s two city blocks away. So, I still have to walk to Central, get on a bus, and go to Walmart,” said Young.

“The consequences are, we’re going to see more businesses closing. We’re going to continue to see them be able to provide less services in our communities and we’re going to see less customers feeling anxious about going into the community and going shopping. And we should not fear going to buy some eggs at the grocery store,” said Black.

The state is taking a massive hit.  According to the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, it’s estimated New Mexico is losing $ 37 million a year in taxes, just from retail crime. That means thousands of jobs and millions in lost wages.

[anvplayer video=”5160990″ station=”998122″]

“We can’t wait anymore. Like I said, the criminal justice system has failed. Something has to be done this 60-day session,” said Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen. “Organized retail theft and property crime is the gateway to violent crime. We have to stop it in its early stages.”

“I think our businesses, both small and large businesses in the state are very, very frustrated. and frankly many of them, their workers are terrified,” Black said.

Black said he’s working with businesses, the Attorney General’s Office and law enforcement agencies to share videos, share information and identify organized retail crime.

Jones said the Albuquerque Police Department has a dedicated team to focus on the most prolific offenders.

“Not the incident where there’s a kid who steals a pack of gum or a mother who can’t afford to pay for food, she’s going there out of the necessity. That’s not what we’re looking at,” said Jones.
“We’re looking at people who are really creating this grey market, or this illicit market of reselling items for a profit. either feed a drug addiction or some other criminal predicate to it.”

Sheriff Allen said he’s also forming a retail crime unit.

“We might arrest them but there’s not enough bite within the statutory law to make sure that they’re held in jail,” said Sheriff Allen.

Take Jonathan Baca, for example. Baca is known to TJ Maxx employees as “the purse guy.”

During the first six months of 2022, police said Baca went into the same store over and over, more than 30 times, to steal purses, adding up to almost $15,000 worth.

“Our statute for basic shoplifting is out of date given what we’re seeing criminals do in terms of stealing from retail stores. the goal is to bring our law to the standard it needs to be in order to appropriately both deter and hold accountable the people who are committing these as organized gangs, often with weapons” said Democratic New Mexico House Representative Marian Matthews

Baca has a warrant for his arrest. He’s facing 29 charges – most are misdemeanor offenses.

“Misdemeanors just don’t get charged in the same way,” she said. “You can’t use the law enforcement resources in the same way.”

House Representative Matthews is pushing a bill, House Bill 234, that creates a new crime of Organized Retail Crime, a second-degree felony, by adding up the total cost of stolen goods over a year. It also amends the robbery statute.

“Our goal is to pass a bill that will give the tools to law enforcement and district attorneys in our state to really start to prosecute the criminal and not just the individual crimes themselves,” said Black.

While this legislation is a better version of others, New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur has a different perspective. 

“Generally, I believe that prosecutors do have the tools currently to do this,” said Baur. “So, I’d like to hear what it is about the current charges that isn’t addressing the problem.”

For example, in a different case, Baca faced shoplifting, drug and criminal trespassing charges. But a plea deal dropped two of the charges.

He got 182 days of unsupervised probation and was banned from TJ Maxx properties.

Baur said anything that put more people behind bars needs to be carefully considered.

“The effect of incarceration makes almost everyone worse when they rejoin our community. those issues are not being discussed when we talk about increasing incarceration,” said Baur.

But Sheriff Allen said something needs to change.

“Sitting in this office as sheriff I’m not going to allow that. It’s pissing me off. I’m tired of seeing it, I’m tired of it affecting your friends, my friends and everyone else,” said Sheriff Allen.

“It creates this entire atmosphere that we live in a lawless community where at any point we could be seriously hurt just by going about our day-to-day business,” said Representative Matthews.

“What the retailers are asking for, our business in our state are asking for, is for the state to step in and provide some additional help, on top of what they’re trying to do to help their customers,” said Black.