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Petty Theft Not So Petty To Area Businesses

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The Holiday Season is a time which brings joy to many. For business owners, that joy comes from peaks in profits. People are buying things, but they are also taking them.

Theft crimes significantly increase around the holidays, leaving some business owners bracing for profits to walk out the door.

The National Retail Federation estimates that for some retailers, the Holiday Season can account for 20-40 percent of a retailer’s annual sales.  With such a high volume of shoppers, the sound of jingles bells and festive music can also cue the sound of security alarms.

Shoppers may only fall victim to theft a few times, if any, in their lifetime. But for store owners, theft becomes part of the job. Mohamed Hkm owns Broadway Cellular, a cell phone store in Westport.

Hkm’s store is relatively small in space, but packed with electronics from wall to wall. These high-dollar items combined with the location of his store put his business at risk for theft. Hkm says that in his five years of business, he has pretty much seen it all when it comes to what thieves will try.

“The worst one was when (the thief) could not break through the window, so he drove his van through (the building) just to get in,” Hkm says.

Hkm estimates the damage to his property from that heist alone cost him $3,500. It also put him out of business for two weeks, adding to the cost. Hkm says that when these crimes occur, he usually calls the police, but according to him, that doesn’t always solve the problem.

“The minute you call the police, it will help, “ Hkm says. “They will come, but the sad part is, you will see these people back on the street again.”

There is a perception that theft crimes are lower on the totem pole than other offenses. This is highlighted by the fact that theft crimes are often referred to as “petty” crimes. Punishment for theft-related offenses is much less severe than those of violent crimes, for instance. Does that make theft a petty crime?

Sergeant Mike Foster heads the central property crimes unit for Kansas City. Foster says that violent crimes or home invasions will always take priority over cases of theft. He says that doesn’t mean that theft isn’t investigated. In fact, he says that often what holds back a case is a lack of follow-through by the victim.

“You know, people move on,” Foster says. “And by the time six months later comes around we’ll call them up and say, ‘Hey listen, we solved your case. I know it’s been a while but we need you to come down and give a statement.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really want to be involved anymore.’”

Foster says it’s frustrating for the department to close a case without a charge. He says that even with a charge, people’s expectations can be too high.

“The court system tries to rehabilitate these people, especially property crime individuals,” Foster says. “That’s what we try to explain to them is — it’s not like he’s going to go to prison for a year. He’s going to get help; they’ll offer him help. If he doesn’t follow through with the help, he violates his probation, and then he can go to jail.”

The holiday season is when Foster says his department sees increases in crime across the board. This isn’t new news, but the ways in which criminals commit theft are constantly evolving. Some use fake money in an effort to dupe storeowners. Others line their shopping bags with special outfitting such as aluminum foil. This tricks the metal detectors, and thieves can walk out with items they did not purchase.

These clever methods of thievery make it all the more important for business owners to stay vigilant. At Broadway Cellular, Hkm has taken it upon himself to beef up security. He installed magnetic locks on the front door. A button behind the register gives Hkm the opportunity to lock someone out, or even keep someone in.

“Sometimes I know he’s going to steal something, or he stole something before and he ran away,” says Hkm. “He comes back to try to do it again, so the moment he comes in, I lock the door and call police.”

Hkm has seemingly gone above and beyond the call of duty. Several security cameras keep the store under constant surveillance. His dog, “Gucc,” who lurks behind the counter during store hours, was even sent to special training classes to protect him from intruders. He even made the choice to live upstairs in the same building as his business, just to better protect it. Hkm says he’s spent about $5,000 of his own cash recently for security.

And the money spent has been well worth it.

“The camera and stuff, it cost me a lot, but at least it will let me know what happened,” Hkm says. “Because before that I would come in the morning and just see the door open, and the whole store is a mess. So at least the camera helps me to see which customer is bad, and who stole.”

Hkm’s security upgrades allow him to gather more information about potential thieves. Many stores feature signs that read, “Owners will prosecute for theft,” but city prosecutor Lowell Gard says that what makes theft crimes hard to pursue is a lack of solid witnesses.

“I think the biggest challenge is getting the witnesses to show up,” Gard says. “We have to prove everything beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a big challenge sometimes when we don’t have a witness. If we don’t have a witness that owns the property, or the witness who saw the defendant take it, we don’t have a case.”

Kansas City’s prosecution office categorizes theft under “General Ordinance Crimes." On average they see over 30,000 general ordinance cases a year. Last December saw more cases than any month so far this year, meaning that December is a popular month for theft. Gard says items like alcohol and expensive electronics are among those most likely to be stolen around the holidays, but trying to predict what people will steal is an impossible task.

“People steal everything,” Gard says. “They steal chickens, groceries, makeup. They steal contraceptives—anything that will fit into a pocket or purse, some things that don’t fit.”

Gard says people can get impatient with theft crimes, because they think it’s as simple as catching the thief with the item. But theft crimes still have a process, and “innocent until proven guilty” means Gard must build a solid case to convict.

“We do a lot better job when we have a persistent, complaining witness, Gard says. “We need some commitment from the public to make our jobs work too.”

Sometimes suspects who are picked up for theft charges can post bond, making it possible for them to be back on the street the same day they were picked up. They are then free until a case is made, which can take a few months, or even years.

An individual’s history is also taken into account, so if a thief has never been convicted before, it will decrease the chance he will stay behind bars. Detective Foster says that can be frustrating for store owners, but reminds them that they have options when it comes to their property.

“Know the people that come in your business,” Foster says. “If they have been in there before, and they committed a crime; you know they committed a crime. File trespass charges on them. It’s still your business; they don’t have to come back.”

Hkm agrees he shares responsibility in keeping his store safe, but points out that more police presence on the streets would be nice. But he also admits that things have gotten better lately, especially with the improved security measures. This is probably a good thing, because in 2011, property crimes caused as estimated $15.6 billion in the U.S. With the nation’s economy still recovering, it would seem these petty crimes aren’t so petty after all.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

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