WALLA WALLA — Easier access to alcohol may have been part of the draw for voters who embraced Washington’s liquor privatization in 2012. But the open displays of whiskey, tequila, vodka and gin are also easier for sticky fingers to take hold.
The Walla Walla Police Department reports a 175 percent increase in alcohol thefts between the first six months of 2012 — before privatization took place — and the first six months of this year. Officers have responded to more than 44 reports of alcohol thefts in the city since January.
On Tuesday police arrested a 17-year-old girl for shoplifting liquor at Safeway on Rose Street after store employees identified the teen as a repeat shoplifter. According to Sgt. Kevin Braman, officers caught the teen with alcohol she concealed. Braman said the teen was arrested on investigation of three counts of third-degree theft and theft with intent to resell stolen goods. Braman also said more charges may be pending as police and store employees examine surveillance footage.
Just a day before that police said they were also investigating reports of an 18-year-old man suspected of taking liquor from stores roughly eight times in June. Witness statements and surveillance video showed him shoplifting at stores from Safeway to Rite Aid. The frequency and amount could lead to charges of organized retail theft, authorities said.
To the best of their knowledge, police say the shoplifting problem skyrocketed in more recent months. Last February, police spokesman Tim Bennett said only one or two thefts had yet been reported. By June shoplifting booze was especially bad, he said.
“We are getting a lot of minors that are stealing it, people that are stealing it and reselling it and I’m sure a lot of it is for their own consumption as well,” he said.
The number from local police likely doesn’t reflect the number of actual thefts either. “There’s no way of knowing how much loss is going unreported,” Bennett said. “We suspect there is a lot.”
The massive access has put a new twist on the marriage between sales and safety, Bennett said. For retailers liquor is a major profit-maker. But the concern with the thefts is that more alcohol could end up in the hands of minors. Thus, law enforcement officials are finding themselves working with retailers on how to display the product and deter theft.
He said he’s working with retailers, including at both Safeway stores and Albertsons, to come up with ways to help deter shoplifting. At Albertsons, he said, the store is working on putting the liquor behind locked doors to limit access to crooks.
“It’s most definitely a public safety issue,” Bennett said. “When anyone can walk into a store and walk out virtually unnoticed with four bottles of booze, you have no idea where it’s going.”
With profit margins high in alcohol sales, many retailers may have been as eager to offer alcohol as voters were to approve the initiative that got it on store shelves.
“I just don’t think there was a whole lot of thought about how to secure those items,” Bennett said. “It is 100 times easier to go in and steal a bottle of booze than a pack of cigarettes.”
Nolan Lockwood, the owner of Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods, tried to think of everything when it came to bracing for the privatization of liquor sales at his Southgate grocery store, 905 S. Second Ave. The transition for a smaller independent retailer was much more costly than the major chains that were already set up with the expensive computing software needed to ring up the purchases and calculate the separate taxes on them. With the separate investment in the alcohol itself he said it was important to minimize losses from theft, breakage and anything else.
At Harvest Foods the bottles are kept behind a counter as opposed to being exposed in the aisles of the store. The little bottles of small servings are kept even more secure to prevent pilfering.
“A lot of the retailers are doing everything they’re supposed to, but the individuals doing this are the ones causing the problems,” Lockwood said.
One challenge is in catching the crooks in the act, he said. “You do your best with placement of your registers, doors, cameras, and you just hope that you’re doing everything right,” he said. “But you just can’t be everywhere at all times.”
The same challenge exists at WalMart, said College Place Detective Roger Maidment. A WalMart manager said he could not comment. However, Maidment said he’s been told the retailer plans to reorganize its liquor selection into a more controlled area, too.
It’s not that people didn’t try to take alcohol from the state-run liquor stores before the privatization of sales. But now that hard alcohol is available for sale in grocery stores, there are a lot more outlets from which to choose. There are also more doors to walk out of with it, possibly less security and more access from younger people. The grocery stores have more doors from which to leave than the liquor stores did.
At Super 1, the alcohol may be set up between the doors, but it’s also located in the front of the store where the most employees are located and the most eyes are watching. “You really feel like you’re in a fishbowl,” Bennett said. “To exit, you can’t just walk straight out. You have to leave that area and pass by people. I think there’s a psychological effect.” It’s one that apparently has helped to discourage frequent liquor thefts.
Ideally, he said, retailers would have it locked up behind a counter so that it can’t be tossed into a cart as easily as a jug of milk.
Bennett said he’s already been in touch with legislators on the concerns. “If the stores aren’t willing to make their liquor items less likely to be stolen, we may have to look at a legislative fix,” he said. “I’d hate for it to come to that, but there’s way too much booze out there waiting to (be stolen).”
Union-Bulletin reporter Luke Hegdal contributed to this report.