Auburn police boost shoplifting enforcement: ‘It’s out of control’

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Shoplifting in Auburn was up 84 percent for the first five months of 2018, according to Auburn Police Deputy Chief Jason Moen. The Police Department has launched an anti-shoplifting campaign. (Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal)

AUBURN — Saying shoplifting is “out of control” in Auburn stores, the Auburn Police Department has launched an anti-shoplifting campaign with tougher enforcement.

“We want people to know that Auburn is open for business but closed to shoplifting,” said Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen.

With just about all stores hit, shoplifting has increased by 84 percent in the first five months of 2018 compared to the same time last year. “We have to do something,” Moen said.

The new campaign means that, starting Wednesday, anyone charged with shoplifting will be arrested and taken to the Androscoggin County Jail. Their photo, name and what they’re charged with will be posted on the Auburn Police Department Facebook page.

Typically when someone is charged with shoplifting police write them a summons, give them a court date and send them on their way. “Now you’re going to jail,” Moen said.

Police blame the shoplifting spike on increased illegal drug use. “I would say about 90 percent is fueled by drug use, especially with heroin and fentanyl mixes that we’re seeing right now,” Moen said. “This is concerning to us.”

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Quentin Chapman, who works in theft and loss for Roopers, said the extra steps are necessary because shoplifting “is out of hand.” There’s more shoplifting by “career” and “opportunity” shoplifters, Chapman said, agreeing that drug use is driving the spike.

While processing people accused of shoplifting in Roopers, Chapman said he tries to identify the person, looking at them and their photos on Facebook “when they were healthy. Sometimes it’s hard to identify them,” he said. “Drugs takes a toll.”

Shoplifting happens frequently at Walmart, a huge store in the region, Moen said. But shoplifting is also happening at Kmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Harbor Freight, JC Penney. “They’re all getting hit,” he said.

People are walking out of stores with goods such as televisions, power tools, clothing, food and jewelry. “It runs the whole gamut,” Moen said.

People are stealing by concealing goods, walking past the registers without buying anything and heading out the door.

Another growing method is he calls “skip-scanning.” Shoppers go to a self-checkout and don’t scan — or pay for — all of their items. “They scan one of their items, throw a couple in the bag, scan another item, throw a couple of more in the bag,” Moen said.

Auburn police are considering recommending a city ordinance that requires a certain ratio of staffing supervising self-scanning registers. At Home Depot, for instance, that store has a couple of self-scanners that are monitored, but Walmart has eight or 10 self-scanners, Moen said. “It’s hard for one person to keep an eye on that.”

Many shoplifters have money on them, Moen said. “You’d be amazed.” He offered an example. A few days ago police arrested a woman in her 20’s for shoplifting at Walmart. “She shoplifted $65 worth of merchandise, but had $125 in cash in her wallet. Nine times out of 10 they’ve got money to pay for it but are choosing to steal.”

Shoplifting is not a victimless crime. “Millions of dollars are lost every year by these companies,” he said.

Auburn police quantified the spike in May after analyzing service calls. As a retail district, shoplifting has always happened in Auburn. “But we saw a huge spike,” Moen said. “We’re seeing a couple of organized theft rings making organized thefts and turning around and pawning them to pawn shops,” or selling the goods and food for money. Auburn detectives are looking into that, Moen said.

Shoplifting has become so frequent that thieves are creating a drain on the Auburn Police Department. Every time police respond to a shoplifting complaint, “that’s eating one or two hours of the officer’s time, taking away from emergency work on the streets.”

And, it will create a higher crime rate in Auburn, which is bad for the city.

Auburn is a safe city, Moen said. There hasn’t been a homicide in years, burglaries have gone down and other violent crimes are few. “But our property crime rate is fairly high,” in part because Auburn is the shopping mecca. People may look at that crime rate, which in 2016 was 34.33 per 1,000, and say, “‘Oh my God! It must be a dangerous city!”

When it comes to the overall crime rate, shoplifting carries the same weight as a homicide, Moen said. “Shoplifting is driving our property crime.”

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