Inside the Coronado Mall Blitz
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Loss prevention specialists, police and mall security recently completed a three-day collaborative operation at the Coronado Mall, this city's oldest mall, designed to deliver a decisive blow to organized retail crime rings in the city. The results: 38 arrests and more than $20,000 in cleared shoplifting cases.
The operation was a joint effort that involved 15 undercover detectives from the Albuquerque Police Department's organized crime unit, the mall's security team, and 10 loss prevention specialists from Gap Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, and Limited Brands, who were flown into the city from their home offices for the operation. It also involved an officer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "That was a world class operation," Nelson Harrah, director of Gap's organized retail crime unit, and one of the operation's organizers, told Security Director News. "To have 15 undercover detectives assigned to [this type of operation] is unheard of." (This was the second such operation in Albuquerque. Last year, a similar operation resulted in 15 arrests.)
Albuquerque is already well-known in the national loss prevention community because of the success of the Albuquerque Retail Assets Protection Association, the public-private partnership formed in 2006 by local loss prevention specialists and the Albuquerque Police Department to combat organized retail crime. Loss prevention and law enforcement agencies around the country have sought to replicate Albuquerque's collaborative retail-crime-fighting model.
Harrah, who's based in San Francisco, leads this sort of undercover operation in different cities every month or so, though Albuquerque stands out because of the level of involvement from law enforcement and other retailers. Gap has had a dedicated organized retail crime unit for seven years—Harrah was its first, and for a while its only, employee. Today his team consists of 17 people, five of which were involved in the Coronado Mall operation. Five loss prevention specialists from Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, and Limited Brands were also involved, he said.
When it comes to these operations, rather than adopt the traditional in-store approach to loss prevention, Harrah prefers to take a "non-traditional" approach, he said. His loss prevention specialists will work undercover, but not just in a Gap store. They're in the food court, the parking lots, the public concourse, other stores, keeping alert for any signs of organized retail crime activity or fraud—from a witnessed theft to a person stuffing empty bags in their socks in the parking lot. When a professional booster is discovered, the undercover loss prevention specialists and police detectives will trail them and observe them on foot and with CCTV from the command center. They'll follow them from store to store, observing their methods, and to the parking lot to drop off stolen goods. Once they've collected enough evidence, the police step in and arrest the suspects. Harrah has found that at the end of the day this type of operation has a much bigger impact than if they were to nab a shoplifter after observing one in-store heist. "Now we have multiple felony charges against them, rather than a single charge. We also recover more. Instead of $2,000 of merchadise out of a booster bag at a traditional arrest, the amount recovered may be a lot more when you get to the car," he said. At the recent Coronado Mall Blitz, the 38 who were arressted only had $3,500 of stolen merchandise on them at the time of the arrest. The additional $16,000 worth of merchandise expected to be recovered is from vehicles where other stolen products were stashed (the APD is still securing the proper warrants to make those seizures), APD Chief Ray Schultz told SDN.
To make an operation like the Coronado Mall Blitz successful, Harrah and Schultz both said pre-planning and communication are paramount. Get everyone—law enforcement, loss prevention specialists from multiple stores, mall security, the property owner—at the table early, and put together case studies that show the top 15 offenders in that particular location over the past six months, Harrah said. Also include information about what type of crimes they commit and whether they could be armed. In both Albuquerque operations they had these sort of pre-operation briefings, "and sure enough we've had great success in both operations of apprehending those top suspects," Harrah said. In the recent Coronado Mall operation, the APD arrested a father-and-son team that had boosted $12,000 worth of merchandise from stores in the mall in the five days prior to the operation, "and that's just the stores that knew they got hit," Harrah said. "That was a big win for us."
It's important to assign specific roles in the operation, as well, Harrah said. Know who's interacting with law enforcement, who's the point person to interact with mall security, etc. Also, knowing everyone's policies beforehand is critical, Harrah said. "Some mall security will go hands on while others will just observe and report," he said. And the same with retailers. "We all have our limitations," he said. Know those limitations beforehand, "so that in the middle of an apprehension you don't have to say, 'oh, hey, I can't get involved' or 'I can't do that.'"
While law enforcement officers are not always eager to spend time chasing down shoplifters, Chief Schultz has seen enormous value in this sort of operation, and collaborating with the loss prevention community, since creating APD's organized crime unit last year. When loss prevention specialists around the country call him to ask how they can get buy-in from their local law enforcement agencies, he tells them to explain to their local law enforcement officer that shoplifting is a "gateway" crime, Schultz said. "These offenders are not just boosters, they're also auto thieves and residential burglars, and identity thieves and they're druggies"—25 percent of those apprehended in the Coronado Mall Blitz had drugs or drug paraphernalia on their person— "This is a gold mine of information for law enforcement because when you arrest one of these folks, you're not only clearing a shoplifting or larceny case, very often you're making connections with identity theft rings or auto theft rings because these offenders are involved in more than just boosting products."
To get buy-in from law enforcement for this type of operation, Harrah offers a strategy he uses: Ask your contacts at law enforcement agencies that you have worked with to speak on your behalf. In fact, that's how Harrah first got involved with Albuquerque. He had worked with the San Antonio Police Department on a similar organized retail crime operation and had an officer there call up their peers in Albuquerque and vouch for Harrah, his team and the results they've been able to show in past operations. "I've got to tell you, it's extremely rare that we don't go and hit it out of the park."
In the end, it takes the law enforcement agencies to see the value in this sort of collaboration to get the ball rolling. There are other police departments like Schultz's that have detectives dedicated to organized retail crime and take shoplifting seriously, "but it's far and few between," Harrah said. "We just hope this type of operation will influence other agencies, small or large, to go out and test it out and see what kind of fruit they get out of an undercover operation."