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Overland Park Police say shoplifting has become a ‘crisis.’ But what does the data say?

An Overland Park police cruiser parked outside Oak Park Mall in November 2023 following a shoplifting incident that turned violent when a suspect allegedly got a hold of and fired an undercover officer's weapon.
Johnson County Post
An Overland Park police cruiser parked outside Oak Park Mall in November 2023 following a shoplifting incident that turned violent when a suspect allegedly got a hold of and fired an undercover officer's weapon.

Despite a few headline-grabbing incidents in Overland Park, public records show that reports and arrests for shoplifting and theft remain below their pre-pandemic peaks. But police officials are raising concerns about what they call "organized retail crime."

In recent public presentations to city leaders, Overland Park police officials have called shoplifting and retail crimes a “crisis.”

The statement, made by Interim Police Chief Simon Happer during the Jan. 10 Overland Park City Council Public Safety Committee, followed two relatively high-profile incidents involving shoplifting that seriously endangered bystanders.

“It’s been a big crisis,” Interim Chief Happer said.

But a review of data the Post obtained through public records requests tells something of a different story. Those figures suggest that, in fact, the prevalence of reported retail thefts and arrests are not increasing but staying mostly static over the past decade.

That being said, department officials say they aren’t so worried about run-of-the-mill shoplifting but what they call organized retail theft.

Happer said the department and the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office are working together to “put an end to this crisis of these thefts.”

“It’s run and grabs,” he said. “They walk in, they grab as much as they can, they walk out.”

Reports and arrests have stayed steady, data shows

A review of data the Post obtained through public records requests suggests — despite a few headline-grabbing incidents — combined reports and arrests stemming from shoplifting and retail theft remain below their pre-pandemic peaks.

In fact, the number of shoplifting reports and arrests between 2013 and 2023 stayed roughly the same with the average number of reports and arrests over the past decade at just above five or six per 1,000 people.

There was a small increase in 2017 and 2018 to seven arrests per 1,000 residents and then a noticeable decline in 2020, coinciding with the onset of COVID-19 when Overland Park and much of the rest of the Kansas City metro instituted “non-essential” business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, and public activity was curtailed.

Capt. Jeff Burvee, who oversees the property crimes unit and the economic crime unit for Overland Park Police, estimated during a recent Public Safety Committee presentation that the raw data only accounts for a “fraction” of the retail thefts that actually occur.

Even so, Happer said “it gets around that Oak Park Mall is not a place to come and steal because the detectives are out there, you never know where they’re at, and they’re always around.”

Overland Park economic leaders see the department’s efforts to proactively police retail theft as a success.

“We’ve been fortunate the rate of retail crime hasn’t increased [proportionally] to Overland Park’s growth due to key public-private partnerships,” said Overland Park Chamber President and CEO Tracey Osborne Oltjen in an emailed statement. “The vigilance of our retailers and the great work of the Overland Park Police Department sends a message that our community will not tolerate that kind of activity.”

When asked directly if Oak Park Mall was receiving complaints about shoplifting from shoppers and mall tenants, and how those concerns compared in volume to past years, representatives from the mall directed the Post’s questions to the police department.

Representatives from Scheels, a primary tenant in Overland Park’s Corbin Park shopping district, didn’t respond to similar inquiries, as of publishing this article.

How does Overland Park deal with shoplifting?

A collection of what Overland Park police officials say is stolen merchandise found in a bedroom in a southern Overland Park home.
Overland Park city documents
A collection of what Overland Park police officials say is stolen merchandise found in a bedroom in a southern Overland Park home.

In an emailed response to the Post, Overland Park Communications Manager Meg Ralph said the police department “has a proactive approach” when it comes to shoplifting.

She said that’s an approach they’ve used since 2014.

For Overland Park, that means stationing a small team of officers and detectives working out of an outpost at Oak Park Mall near the south Dillards storefront. That team is called the Organized Retail Crime Unit.

The department also tries to work with leaders at “many of the city’s other retail centers,” Ralph said.

And, during the holiday season, the police department runs a special operation to crack down on shoplifting.

At the end of 2023, there were two major shoplifting-related incidents that put bystanders in danger during police intervention.

In one incident involving misdemeanor shoplifting in November, court records say a teenage suspect got a hold of and fired an undercover police detective’s gun — hitting a seat where a child had been sitting moments before — in Oak Park Mall’s food court area after officers tried to apprehend him and another suspect.

When the other suspect fled, police say he attempted to fight the officer trying to detain him.

The suspect who police say fired the gun faces a laundry list of charges in connection to the incident at the mall, including multiple counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, aggravated endangerment of a child and discharge of a firearm in the city, according to court records.

In the other incident late last year, a bystander was left with a broken arm and a suspect was killed in a traffic collision during a police pursuit.

A car with three suspects had allegedly fled the scene of a reported felony shoplifting incident at TJ Maxx in southern Overland Park and, at some point, had a collision of some kind with an officer’s patrol vehicle.

A pursuit ensued onto U.S. Highway 69 and then Blue Valley Parkway around 4 p.m. on a weekday. Eventually, the chase concluded in a collision with another vehicle at the intersection with 119th Street. The suspect’s vehicle reportedly ran a red light, injuring all three in the suspect vehicle and a fourth in the bystander vehicle.

A suspect riding in the backseat, per the affidavit, was gravely injured, and later died.

The alleged driver faces a slew of charges, including felony theft less than $25,000 and misdemeanor theft. This month, she was also charged with first-degree murder.

Court documents show that another passenger ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of felony identity theft and guilty to felony theft less than $25,000. The prosecutor dismissed some of the charges she faced.

When the Post asked specifically if the chase stemming from the TJ Maxx incident followed the Overland Park Police Department’s standard for pursuits, Ralph said “the details of this specific situation are considered part of a personnel record.”

She added that a “Pursuit Review Board reviews all pursuits and determines if the event was a pursuit as defined by policy and if the event was within policy.”

Additionally, when asked if it would be appropriate in general to have a police pursuit as a result of a shoplifting or retail crime, Ralph said that would be determined “on a case-by-case basis.”

'A lucrative target' for retail theft

For Overland Park police officials, it’s “organized retail crime” that has them most concerned.

In both the January and March Public Safety Committee meetings, police department leaders described what they called rings of individuals who travel around or work together to steal large quantities of items to then resell for profit.

The “landscape of retail crime has changed,” Capt. Burvee, with the department’s property crimes unit, said during the March 13 committee meeting.

Broadly, organized retail crime is considered “any theft that has three or more participants in an active theft … who steals with the intent to resale,” Overland Park Police Public Information Officer John Lacy said in an email.

“Shoplifters are stealing for themselves, maybe get a pair of tennis shoes or something that they need,” Burvee said. “Organized retail crime refers to professional criminal enterprises … focusing on retail environments.”

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
Overland Park Police say the city is a target for retail crime.

Overland Park does not keep data on the number of “organized retail crimes” or track what percent of all reports are considered “organized,” Lacy said.

However, detectives in a “ballpark estimate” said they “believe approximately half of the retail thefts in Overland Park are organized in one way or another,” Lacy added. If that’s the case, that would come out to an average of about 467 reports a year tied to organized retail theft.

Burvee called Overland Park “a lucrative target” for potential shoplifters.

“We live in a beautiful place,” he said. “We’re a high target for property crimes. We have great shopping.”

At the March committee meeting, he showed images in a slideshow presentation taken from what he said was a southern Overland Park home where a bedroom had been converted into a “shopping center” of stolen merchandise a few years ago. In another photo from an Overland Park bust, a shelf was stocked with “stolen makeup.”

Councilmember Melissa Cheatham, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, told the Post she also sees organized retail crime as “a national concern” and recognizes “its potential impact on shoppers and business in Overland Park.”

“But I think that the continued success of Overland Park and the fact that we continue to see new businesses opening and people choosing to shop and do business in Overland Park shows that people generally do feel safe and protected here,” she said.

She recently did a “walk along” of sorts with the unit stationed at Oak Park Mall.

“I was very impressed by the collaborative proactive approach they take,” Cheatham said. “They are able to work and respond swiftly to observed incidents but also to observe and prevent crime and to hold criminals accountable when they do commit retail crimes.”

What does the law say about organized retail crime?

The state of Kansas currently carries no extra penalties related to organized retail crimes, Lacy said.

However, the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee this legislative session sponsored a bill from Attorney General Kris Kobach’s office that would do just that and create a new class of theft related to organized retail crimes among other things related to such crimes. It also would add organized retail theft to the state’s racketeering laws as well.

“The problem continues to grow,” Kobach said during the March 12 hearing on the bill. “What we are learning in these cases is that charging the individuals with garden variety theft isn’t enough. The penalties are not high enough, and it will just become the cost of doing business.”

The anti-organized crime bill passed out of committee last week as KS Senate Substitute for House Bill 2144.

Plus, Lacy said “organized retail crime is a major issue nationwide.”

“Overland Park is home to many popular retail centers, and we take very seriously the life and property safety in our city,” he continued, alluding to the presentation to the Public Safety Committee in March.

At the federal level, a bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee called the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act, which would establish the Organized Retail Crime Coordination Center. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, hasn’t passed either chamber in the U.S. Congress.

Police officials in Overland Park have also said that shoplifting suspects have become more aggressive.

Chief Happer, in January, told the committee that such suspects are more keen to fight when law enforcement officers try to detain them.

“They fight, they want to fight,” Happer said. “It’s not us, they attack us.”

Capt. Burvee also said the department is worried about shoplifters carrying weapons as well, such as handguns they might use to resist.

“Everybody carries guns now,” he said. “Today, for whatever reason the retail theft defenders are willing to fight and flee from law enforcement.”

During a 2023 holiday shoplifting crackdown operation that lasted 22 days, Burvee said the department recovered five guns from suspects during 76 arrests. The year prior in a similar operation, the department found three guns in 27 arrests.

Is shoplifting a national problem?

Whether shoplifting is a national problem really depends on where you look.

Shoplifting incidents were actually below their pre-pandemic levels in 2022 and 2023 broadly, according to a Council on Criminal Justice data report published late last year based on 23 cities in the U.S.

On the other hand, major cities like New York and Los Angeles showed big jumps in “reported shoplifting” between 2019 and 2023.

Additionally, the value of what’s stolen has seemingly gone up, per the CCJ study, with the percentage of felony offenses of the pool of all counted shoplifting offenses rising.

In Kansas state statutes, the theft of goods greater than $1,000 is considered a felony, but that standard varies between states. It can be as low as $200 in New Jersey or as high as $2,500 in Texas.

Council member Cheatham is open to including more discussions about retail theft or other concerns on the Public Safety Committee’s agenda for 2024.

She told the Post she also wants to put data — like crime trend reports and crime rates per capita — at the center of these conversations.

“I think it can be difficult for the public to understand what the facts are and what the story is that they might hear on TV, so it’s really important to me as chair of the Public Safety Committee to be bringing facts to the committee,” she said.

With the data-based information, she expects the city council to be able to “evaluate what the solutions are, evaluate if there are policy changes or investment changes needed.”

“I really want to make sure that we’re taking a data-driven approach to addressing real and perceived concerns, and making sure that we have the data to decide which is which,” Cheatham said.

This story was originally published by the Johnson County Post.

Kaylie McLaughlin covers Shawnee, Lenexa and USD 232 for the Shawnee Mission Post.
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