At a supermarket in the Bronx, a shoplifter grabbed the worker’s neck to stop him from leaving and threatened him with a knife.
Another grocer watched a repeat thief enter his store with a shotgun, causing customers to cower to the ground in fear.
In Long Island, a store has requested that a police car be stationed around closing time to prevent last-minute theft.
These incidents and store precautions often go unreported, but they still occur daily across New York.
And on Tuesday, Target announced it was closing one of its major stores in Harlem due to theft and security threats to employees and shoppers.
Retailers and supermarkets brought scores of these to Albany last year.
We approached lawmakers with a simple request: Please make our businesses safer for our employees and customers.
We made the appeal because our stores have been robbed for too long and our employees and customers have been injured.
It’s just not sustainable.
As leaders plan their top priorities for the next session, they must make retail theft a key part of the agenda this time.
The statistics show that New York City continues to struggle.
In 2023 through the end of July, shoplifting arrests increased 19.9%, from 12,412 to 14,877.
These are crimes that are largely due to reoffending: of the 14,877 arrests, 64.5% were arrested for shoplifting before 2023.
Just 386 people account for 30% of shoplifting arrests – all of them were caught six or more times, and one of them had 55 arrests.
This crisis has emerged with graphic footage showing many stores being robbed, workers confronted and customers frightened.
The videos are a reminder that days and nights can be unnecessarily dangerous for supermarket and retail workers.
We all know the disadvantages of retail theft.
The financial damage is done to retailers who lose profits – profits that are already diminishing due to inflation and rising costs.
Stores also have to invest in their own security, which squeezes profit margins even further – a cost that the consumer sometimes has to bear.
At the same time, we have all also seen that the plague of retail theft has led to stores locking up items that were particularly attractive to thieves behind protective covers.
Businesses don’t want to do that – it’s inefficient and an eyesore. But they have to, otherwise products like these might not stay on the shelf.
This year, retailers and supermarkets decided enough was enough and formed Collective Action to Protect our Stores.
CAPS, as it is called, is a coalition of more than 10,000 different companies from across New York City and the state that specifically address retail theft.
The coalition grew over time, and when we drove to Albany, dozens of businesses met with state legislators and told them their stories.
The questions asked by the stores were simple and straightforward:
- Establish dedicated NYPD and District Attorney units for retail theft.
- Encourage prosecutors to seek compensatory damages to seek bail for repeat offenders, and urge judges to use this tool to set bail.
- Pass major legislation to classify assaults on retail employees and owners as a Class D felony, consolidate charges to increase theft to theft, and create a new felony of promoting the sale of stolen goods.
- Launch and implement a public awareness campaign against shoplifting and hold all levels of the criminal justice system accountable for doing their part in solving this problem.
We were able to cover part of the way. Legislative Assemblymember Manny De Los Santos and state Sen. Jessica Scarcella-Spanton proposed making an assault on a retail worker a Class D felony of second-degree assault, drawing support from dozens of supporters in the Assembly appeal.
The measures that put attacking a retail worker on the same level as attacking a taxi driver or public transport worker simply make sense.
Although we made progress, the bills were not passed.
What we got was a retail theft task force that Gov. Kathy Hochul did not sign into law.
We hope she does, and that this task force comes together and recognizes that this problem is not going away – too many stores continue to suffer from retail theft, and workers are at risk.
For many employees, these bills represent the best chance to feel safe and secure in their workplace.
During the pandemic, retail workers braved the unknown to keep New York City afloat.
Today, they are simply demanding that their state government step in and give them the protections they deserved when they were labeled “frontline workers” in 2020.
We urge Governor Hochul to sign the task force bill and call on the Assembly and Senate to make combating retail theft a priority.
For the employees and customers at risk every day, there is no time to wait.
Seny Taveras is executive director of the National Supermarket Association.