Actually, shoplifting hasn't soared in Spokane — it's plummeted

click to enlarge Actually, shoplifting hasn't soared in Spokane — it's plummeted
Young Kwak photo
Take comfort, mall owners of Spokane.

Yesterday's press release from the Spokane Police Department about the department's anti-shoplifting emphasis may have you wondering whether shoplifting is spiraling out of control.

"This month the Spokane Police Department conducted a series of anti-shoplifting enforcement [actions] designed to curb rising thefts at malls and stores," the press release read. "SPD works closely with retail loss prevention as the volume and brazen acts of stealing from stores can be overwhelming."

But shoplifting pretty much always increases during the holiday. The Inlander wanted to know whether reported incidents of shoplifting were actually higher than they were in previous years.

So we asked.  

In an email exchange, Spokane Police spokeswoman Julie Humphreys writes that, as of Dec 18, there have been just over 1,200 shoplifting arrests for the entire year to date. But that's actually a tiny 0.3 percent decrease compared to 2020's numbers.

But 2020 was a weird year, you may be saying. Absolutely.

But compared with 2019, our shoplifting numbers are a third lower. And compared with 2018, we've seen a 45 percent decrease.

Technically, shoplifting has been rising recently. Humphreys says the number of shoplifting cases has steadily increased each month this year since July.

But zoom out and the big news story is that reports of shoplifting have plunged over the past two years.

click to enlarge Actually, shoplifting hasn't soared in Spokane — it's plummeted (2)
Daniel Walters graphic
The number of shoplifting incidents reported to Spokane Police from Jan. 1 through Dec. 18 of each of the last four years.

Last year, they had an easy explanation: The lockdown and the stay-at-home order. (One quick trick to stop shoplifting? Eliminate shops.)

"While it would have been reasonable to return to 2019 levels, it is a bit unexpected that we are lower in 2021," Humphreys writes.

According to the city's Compstat numbers, reported cases of larceny fell about 12 percent last year — the lowest they've been in the past decade — and have fallen another 10 percent so far this year.

While those figures don't break out shoplifting, last year, reported incidents of larceny to the Spokane police department included 410 incidents in a grocery store, 412 in a department store, 188 in a gas station, 84 in a shopping mall, and 55 at a mission or homeless shelter.

And most of these weren't the stereotypical cases of teenage ne'er do wells: Of the 2020 larceny cases where the age of the offender was known, the largest group was in the 50- to 59-year-old age range.

That's not unusual, according to previous research, which has also found shoplifting is more common among men, more common among those with higher incomes, and often linked to substance abuse and impulse control problems.

This year's, National Retail Security Survey also found that shoplifting fell significantly during 2020, though the average cost of the items being stolen had increased.

Still, shoplifting has become a national news story. San Francisco footage of a shoplifter methodically filling up a bag with items in full view of employees and a security guard went viral this summer. In Chicago and in Southern California, mobs of thieves in broad daylight have stormed into department stores and effectively looted the shelves. The National Retail Security Survey identified more incidents of brazen and violent theft in 2020 than in prior years.

And, according to Humphreys, there have been some incidents of particularly in-your-face shop theft in Spokane as well.

"We are seeing extreme, brazen acts as thieves are exiting stores with shopping carts full of merchandise assuming loss prevention will not take action," Humphreys writes, "Thus, the emphasis patrol."

In more cases the suspect has been armed, she says, which means it gets categorized as an armed robbery instead of "shoplifting." Of the 23 commercial robberies from November 1 to December 18, Humphreys says, 19 were shoplifting related.

But there's a lot of reason to think the good news in the data is actually good news for real.

Back in 2014, Washington was the worst state in the nation for property crimes, which includes everything from expensive bike thefts to burglaries. Along with our low number of police officers, we were one of the only states in the nation to not supervise property crime offenders. But that's finally changed. More police officers have been hired, the state and city have changed their policies, and the City of Spokane has seen a dramatic decrease in property crime reports.

Now, to be clear, that's reported property crime. If your bike gets stolen, but you don't report it, it doesn't show up on the stats. Humphreys says that the police department believes that "retailers are not reporting the full scope of activity."

But, as Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl has pointed out before, most people — even the ones cynical about the ability of the police to solve thefts — will call the cops if their car gets stolen. And car thefts last year were half what they were in 2014.

That doesn't detract from Spokane's spike in murders and shootings the last two years — murder matters a lot more than someone swiping a handbag. But it's a good reminder: Not everything's falling apart. Some things have actually gotten better. 

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...