Public-private model for fighting retail crime spreads across the country

 - 
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—A collaboration in this city between law enforcement and local retail stores has become a model retail-crime-fighting tool that is being replicated across the country.

The Albuquerque Retail Assets Protection Association was formed in 2006 as a vehicle for the Albuquerque Police Department and local retail stores to share information about retail crime. The group brings together law enforcement officers with local loss prevention professionals at monthly meetings where information about recent cases of shoplifting or organized retail crime is shared. "This isn’t sitting around having coffee and donuts and shaking hands. This is bringing real case information to share with this group of professionals on both sides," said Joe LaRocca, VP of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation, who has attended ARAPA meetings. "They solve cases in that room."

The APD recently was a finalist for a community-policing award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police for the ARAPA model.  By “engag[ing] our business community through proactive enforcement and sharing of information we can be, as law enforcement, more proactive in identifying criminal patterns," said Karen Fischer, the strategic support division manager at the Albuquerque Police Department and one of the organizers of ARAPA.

But ARAPA's success wasn't always so sure. The very first meeting happened in 2006. About five or six stores participated. Some police officers were begrudgingly there, as well, sitting in the back of the room with their arms crossed thinking this was just another new idea that probably wouldn't work, Fischer said. But then a loss prevention employee from a local Walgreens stood up and posted some images of a man swiping merchandise from a shelf, "and an officer stood up and said, 'I investigated the same guy for auto burglary last week,'" Fischer told Security Director News. "And the arms became uncrossed and our partnership started."

The monthly meetings went on for a year or so, but Fischer saw a need for more real-time sharing of information. So, with the help of a web developer and some funding, she created a web portal to a secure database that allows loss prevention professionals to post information, including images, about recent cases of retail crime. All participants in the collaboration will receive the posts and a discussion thread is created to allow anyone to share relevant information as officers investigate. "So now we've moved from the traditional scenario of law enforcement of a victim calling a police officer and only two people having the information, to having a mechanism where everybody who's engaged in the partnership will simultaneously get the posting," Fischer said. "We level the communication platform."

The success of the group and its web portal has been replicated in cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago. There are about 12 public-private partnerships across the country in the pipeline, said LaRocca.

Fischer has been approached by a number of cities seeking information about creating a similar crime-fighting web portal. She tells them all that the web portal won’t work without the partnership. "The foundation of what we're doing has got to be based on a public-private partnership in communities and … building that trust between law enforcement who will be investigating the crimes and the asset protection personnel," Fischer said. Once that foundation is in place, the stakeholders will feel comfortable sharing sensitive information through the web portal.

Another result of the success of ARAPA is a new organized crime unit the Albuquerque Police Department announced in August. The new unit will be dedicated to working with the private sector to investigate cases of organized retail crime and theft, and has already racked up a string of arrests and busted organized retail crime rings operating in the Albuquerque area, said LaRocca. It's very unique for a city the size of Albuquerque to have a dedicated retail crime unit, LaRocca said, "especially at a time when law enforcement [officials] are making decision about where to spend budget dollars."

Albuquerque's police chief, Ray Shultz, is on the "cutting edge" in terms of fighting retail crime, LaRocca said. "He recognizes it’s a gateway to so many crimes that take place," LaRocca said.

Fischer agreed. She said 80 to 95 percent of all crime that happens in a community will be property crime, and that law enforcement officials often don't take seriously all the small shoplifting cases, but they are all interrelated.

However, the original impetus of ARAPA was not to fight retail crime. It was to build community-based, public-private partnerships with the business community, Fischer said. So the Albuquerque Police Department has taken the ARAPA model and created similar public-private partnerships with the local hospitality, construction and banking sectors. Each is its own partnership, but it allows the police department to track crime across these areas and better map out criminal patterns. "We know criminals are opportunists. They won't stop at just retail stores. They will also go into hotels or steal products to manufacture meth or be involved with counterfeiting activities," Fischer said. "What I'm seeking to document is that retail crime, crime in hotels, crime of copper theft—things that tend to fly under the radar—is real crime."