Why we’re seeing more police at chain stores, and what the ethical implications are.
Tucked in Governor Kathy Hochul’s preliminary budget announcement last week,— among much-anticipated items like $2.4 billion in asylum seeker funding and plans for education and housing, was $40.2 million to “address retail theft” —an item so prominent it got its own bullet point in her handout, along with a separate tax credit for business owners impacted by retail theft.
This might have been a bit confusing if you haven’t been aware of the extent to which retail theft has become a political issue in the last couple years, as a kind of stand-in for the general “urban decay” narrative that gets spun up as a talking point every so often. Or perhaps you had heard about it, and also heard that the retail industry was caught red-handed making up a panic, and there’s good evidence that this is basically correct. Last year, the National Retail Federation — an industry group for retail stores — was found to have fabricated shoplifting statistics and otherwise inflated the severity of the problem. Walgreens finance chief James Kehoe infamously acknowledged that “maybe we cried too much” about retail theft during an earnings call early last year.
Nonetheless, these are national trends, and the picture gets more complicated if we’re looking specifically at NYC. Here, statistics show that there has been an increase of roughly 63% in reported shoplifting incidents from 2019 to 2023, to just over 28,000 in the latter year, though contrary to the more sympathetic image of the local bodega under siege, this has overwhelmingly impacted large chain stores. While the data is useful, it also isn’t very granular, in that it doesn’t differentiate between someone taking a designer bag in the “smash and grab” incidents that have captured public attention or someone pocketing a candy bar.
The issue certainly is very polarizing. Last week, I snapped the picture above while I was picking something up at my local CVS in Harlem, and shared it with a (admittedly snarky) comment about whether the city is now funding pharmacy security during a budget crunch. I’d asked the officers present if they were making overtime, and they responded that they were on regular duty, which would mean that they were essentially patrolling a chain store during a routine patrol day. The post garnered a decent amount of attention, including over a hundred comments that mostly derided the city and the NYPD (I noted that I have no reason to begrudge these specific officers, but have some questions here as a policy matter).
Whose responsibility — the state or the store?
One of the questions is to which extent protecting these shops is the responsibility of the state. On the one hand, chain stores can and do hire their own private security—I’ve seen an armed guard in a Walgreens before. Guarding their wares is fundamentally an exercise in protecting the bottom line of large corporations.
On the other hand, it is obviously the responsibility of the police to prevent and respond to crimes, including property crimes, regardless of whether the victims are individuals or multinationals. I have no insight into whether there had been multiple incidents at this particular CVS, or if perhaps some of those incidents had been violent. I know that the officers I saw looked pretty bored and passive, but maybe command could enunciate some specific reason they were there.
Among those reasons might be simple dissuasion at a known hotspot, and that’s fair enough if the community feels safer. And it may well be that Hochul’s operation could stop these petty crimes in a way that will prevent more significant crimes down the line. I will note though that this skirts very close to what is commonly known as the “broken window”s theory of policing, which has in important ways been debunked.
There’s another possibility here, surfaced by some commenters on my post, that the officers were lying to me about being on regular duty and were actually on something known as paid detail, which since 1998 has allowed private businesses to hire uniformed but off-duty officers to serve as private security. A cheerful handout from the department includes a price list of hourly rates by rank and advertises “the FINEST in uniformed security for your organization” (I’m not kidding).
I’m not going to get too far into that because it’s ultimately a separate question. Suffice it here to say I think it’s worth having a public conversation about the propriety and significance of private interests being able to directly hire the agents of the state with a monopoly on sanctioned violence.
The police’s duty to the public
Beyond that, there’s the higher-order issue of what exactly the public can expect from the police, and what police authorities actually owe businesses and individuals. This might seem puzzlingly obvious, but you might be surprised to learn it’s not that clear-cut. In the somewhat notorious case and 2005 Supreme Court decision in Castle Rock v. González, the court essentially ruled that the police have no constitutional duty to protect any specific person from harm.
That case (fair warning that there are some disturbing details ahead) began when Castle Rock, Colorado resident Jessica González sued the town and its police force for refusing to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband, who had abducted their three daughters. Despite pleading multiple times with officers to intervene and arrest the man, they did not act until he showed up to the police station himself and opened fire, at which point he was shot and killed. By then, he had already murdered the three girls.
While that case hinged specifically on restraining orders, Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion fundamentally established that the police have no affirmative duty to protect someone above their broader and more diffuse responsibility for public safety, i.e. there’s no remedy if a cop negligently refuses to protect you.
I bring this up because it definitively lays out that police forces and their leaders are legally empowered to make prioritization decisions including when these decisions directly leave some people in harm. Obviously, cops that are busying themselves patrolling racks of deodorant and monitoring store feeds are not going to be simultaneously doing something else like, say, raising the department’s plummeting clearance rates for homicides and other serious crimes, which have tanked trust among some communities.
It’s also worth noting that Hochul’s proposal here isn’t just about having more cops pop into shops. As laid out in a New York Focus piece, this proposal is a federal, state, and local “joint operation” run out of a network of so-called fusion centers, a model that was developed in the aftermath of 9/11 as a counter-terror response. Very basically, their intent is to centralize intelligence sharing through various levels of government in secretive hubs that act somewhat outside the standard operations of police departments.
Is this a necessary or appropriate approach to retail theft? I’m a little skeptical, but I also can’t give you a specific alternate path. At the very least, though, we should be asking some pointed questions about what we expect out of this approach.