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Attorney General embarks on new approach to organized retail theft

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is seen just ahead of his presentation on a newly-funded organized retail theft unit in Bellevue on May 18, 2023. (KOMO News)
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is seen just ahead of his presentation on a newly-funded organized retail theft unit in Bellevue on May 18, 2023. (KOMO News)
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A new team of investigators will soon take on the organized crime rings that steal from retail stores and create billions of dollars in losses every year in Washington.

The crime-fighting unit goes well beyond shoplifting, according to Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. He wants to go after the thieves who systematically steal from local businesses and then use that money to carry out even more serious crimes.

Ferguson gave an overview of the Organized Retail Crime unit to members of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce during a luncheon on Thursday. He was part of a panel discussion that included Renee Sunde and Mark Johnson with the Washington Retail Association, as well as Carl Kleinknecht, the director of security for Kemper Development Company.

Ferguson told chamber members that with the scope of the problem so huge, a broad but focused approach was the best way to have an impact on organized retail theft.

“These retail crime cases are just far more sophisticated than your typical theft, and that's what makes it difficult for local jurisdictions to bring these cases,” Ferguson said.

Retail theft costs Washington businesses $2.7 billion every year, according to statistics cited by Sunde, and customers share the burden with higher prices.

The new retail crime unit will combat the groups who steal products and resell them for profit, but Ferguson said it starts with local police and prosecutors.

“So we are still dependent on local authorities to help with the investigations to sort of bring the investigations to my team," Ferguson said.

At The Bellevue Collection, Kemper Development Company’s director of security, Carl Kleinknecht said a network of cameras and on-site loss prevention officers allows them to build criminal cases against retail thieves in ways many small businesses cannot.

“We chase them out of the location, oftentimes to their vehicle," Kleinknecht said. “They will then drop the stolen property. They look back, we're still chasing them, they say 'You can't chase us. We gave you your stuff back.' We say no we're still chasing you because you committed a felony."

Ferguson said his unit will coordinate investigations across several cities or counties by concentrating on areas where crime is occurring. Following any arrests, members of the unit may even prosecute some of the cases. That could provide local law enforcement with what Ferguson calls a force multiplier to take on these often sophisticated criminals.

“This fund that we have from the Legislature will allow us to do some investigations, but it is still a statewide problem that is going to need a statewide focus, and local law enforcement will have to be involved to make these cases work,” Ferguson said.

State lawmakers provided more than $2.2 million for this effort, and the money becomes available on July 1.

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Ferguson is also a candidate for governor.

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