Brad Griffin, President of the Montana Retail Association, said he was astounded a couple of years ago when one of his members, the manager of one of the largest “box stores” in Billings, told him that they had just suffered, in one year, $800,000 in losses from what is commonly called shoplifting. The manager said that they were seeing a dramatic increase in losses and wanted to know if there was something that could be done through the Retail Association.

Griffin said that like most people, while he knew shoplifting was problematic, he thought of it in terms of kids stealing candy bars or the poor pilfering an item or two here and there . . . he had no idea it was as great a problem for the retailers as it is.

In a meeting they quickly organized of other retailers in the area, Griffin discovered that all of them had similar figures to report in property losses. A grocery store in the western part of the state suffered a loss of $1 million in one year! [this figure has been corrected from an earlier version that it was a monthly loss.]

The reality is, shoplifting isn’t a nuisance risk to business, it’s more like a growth industry, one in which the typical retail store can suffer as much as 30 percent “shrinkage.” Nationally the losses have been estimated at $30 billion annually. “It’s a problem that puts many businesses out of business,” said Griffin.

With most retail stores netting no more than five percent, said Griffin, “How much do you have to sell every week to make up for $100,000 in losses?”

But the problem is that of more than just retail store owners, it’s a problem for every consumer who winds up paying more for every item on the shelf to compensate for those losses.

Drawing upon local resources, The Montana Retail Association launched a program, one patterned after a program already being used in other areas of the country called ORCA (Organized Retail Crime Alliance).

Griffin brought together County Attorney Scott Twito, City Attorney Brent Brooks, Chief of Police Rich St. John, as well as all Loss Prevention Officers (LPOs) for stores, managers and owners. Through a cooperative effort they have all come to be part of ORCA, which is facilitated by a website that allows LPOs, law enforcement officers, and others to post pictures of suspects and to research the records of suspects. To use ORCA store owners must be a member of the Montana Retail Association. Access to the system is closely monitored – users, both law enforcement and LPOs, must be vetted.

Having good quality security cameras is essential to the effectiveness of ORCA and given the huge sums at stake, most retail stores have the best, said Griffin. While the technology is available, ORCA has not yet used facial recognition programs, said Griffin.

Prior to the organizing efforts of the Montana Retail Association, retailers were not communicating with each other about their experiences. Now they do, and that has made a great deal of difference.

After two years in operation the results of ORCA are mixed. The potential for ORCA remains, but a bill passed in the last state legislature – one that Griffin calls “the worst bill in history,” crippled its effectiveness dramatically. It is the goal of Griffin, who lobbies for the Montana Retail Association, to correct that situation in the next state legislature.

The most effective aspect of ORCA is that it brought everyone involved in the apprehension and prosecution of shoplifters together. “It puts us all in the same room,” says Riley Finnegan with the City of Billings Police department who serves as the department’s liaison.

 It has initiated a communication process that is helping everyone identify those responsible for the crimes and to bring them to justice. What they have discovered is that the thieves are essentially professionals; they are not kids or an occasional pilferer.

They move from city to city along the primary thoroughfares in the state, hitting store after store in each community, and if they aren’t organized, they operate as though they are says Finnegan, “I am sure it is out there. It is organized in some fashion, but it’s pretty hard to track.”

The greatest common denominator behind the crimes is – as seems to be the case in all aspects of crime any more – drugs and alcohol. Finnegan said that drug dealers will even tell their drug buyers what they want them to go steal, which the dealer can then sell.

With ebay and other venues to market goods the opportunities to unload stolen goods abound. But the means to liquidate their ill-gotten gains are many… sometimes they never leave the store and just take the item to get cash for it as a returned item.

Since a theft under $1500 is treated as a misdemeanor under Montana law, being the professionals that they are, the thieves are very careful not to steal anything valued at more than $1500. But, of course, their incidents of misdemeanor theft are many. The only way the victimized retailers can get justice is if prosecutors can “stack” the misdemeanor crimes, which is what makes ORCA such a valuable tool since it enables retailers and law enforcement across the state to track any and all charges against all perpetrators.

But, therein lays the problem created with the passage of the “worst bill in history.” HB 133, in an attempt to reduce inmate populations in jails and caseloads in courts, disallows arrest of a misdemeanor shoplifter on their first offense. But if there is no arrest there is no record, so that means there is never a first offense. In essence a habitual offender is home free, never to be arrested. And, there is certainly no opportunity to “stack” misdemeanor cases to make a felony charge against thieves with multiple misdemeanors.

It’s a frustrating situation for all involved. But despite that there have been a few successful cases in which serious offenders have been prosecuted on multiple charges, said Finnegan. Some of that stems from the fact that the shoplifters are usually involved in other kinds of offenses including drug related crimes, spousal abuse, car theft, etc. which can be included in the stacking of offenses.

Griffin said that while he understands and appreciates what legislators were trying to do with the passage of HB 133, he hopes to be able to sit down with legislators and work out an alternative approach which will allow the prosecution of criminals who are having a significant negative impact on businesses and on our communities.

The Montana Retail Association was founded in the 1960s through the cooperative effort of what was then three of the big retail giants, JC Penney, Sears and Montgomery Ward. A primary focus of the organization is to lobby on behalf of the retail industry and to maintain a presence with state government.