It was a scene that every police chief dreads. A Newington officer was dragged 150 yards Feb. 11 after he attempted to pull over a man accused of trying to steal $190 worth of beer from a local market.
Fortunately the officer wasn’t seriously injured and the toll on police and area businesses from most shoplifting incidents are usually not potentially deadly, according to several area police departments.
But depending on the town and the number of large “big box” stores within its borders, shoplifting is a crime that is time consuming for both police and the businesses.
New Britain, Bristol, Plainville, Southington, Newington and Berlin, all have differing numbers of large businesses, some of which prefer not to prosecute shoplifters and some that have security staff that monitors criminal activity on a regular basis.
“It’s a very big problem,” said Plainville Lt. Nicholas Mullins who attributed many of his town’s 419 reported larcenies in 2016 to shoplifting. “Our patrol officers spend a lot of time dealing with it.”
Mullins pointed to “Connecticut Commons,” a plaza on Route 372 that has several large stores including a Kohl’s department store, Lowes home improvement and a movie theater. “We have a lot of businesses,” he said. “Kohl’s has excellent security and they are very pro-enforcement.”
Plainville police use “directed patrols” where officers will drive through the plaza, park and get out and walk through stores to make their presence known, he said. “We’ll saturate the area with officers,” Mullins said, which tends to have a chilling effect on crime.
Most incidents involve a store detaining a suspected shoplifter until police arrive, Mullins said. In a few cases, shoplifters will resist and wind up wrestling with security or officers, turning the incident into a robbery, or worse.
In June a Plainville officer and two loss prevention specialists were nearly struck by a car several times when the driver tried to flee after allegedly taking $165 worth of Nike merchandise from Kolh’s, according to an arrest warrant. He was later identified by his distinct tattoos which the officer could see as he repeatedly had to jump out of the way from being run down.
Incidents like those are the exception, Mullins said. “We tell loss prevention to let them go and not escalate the situation by getting into a confrontation with a shoplifter,” Mullins said. “If they get a good description and a license plate, we’d rather have them do that, than have someone get into a physical confrontation.”
With an expanse of Route 10 developed as a shopping haven with five exits off Interstate 84, Southington police deal with about one shoplifting incident a day, said Sgt. Jeffrey Dobratz. Some of the stores, which Dobratz declined to identify, don’t pursue charges against shoplifters.
“Some have a ‘don’t confront’ policy,” he said. “They look at it as a liability that can cost them a lawsuit.”
Other stores, like the Walmart in Southington, have implemented more criminal deterrence initiatives including a “restorative justice” program which gives accused shoplifters a chance to attend classes rather than face arrest. Due in part to the program which educates suspected shoplifters rather than prosecutes them, the company has seen a 35 percent reduction in calls to police about crime, said spokesperson Ragan Dickens.
“No retailer is immune to the challenge of crime,” Dickens said in a statement. “We recognize the importance of this issue at the highest levels of the company, and we are investing in people and technology to support our stores. We’re encouraged by a 35 percent reduction in calls to law enforcement agencies nationwide, on average, since we began implementing restorative justice and other crime deterrence programs.”
Southington police dealt with 28 shoplifting incidents from Jan. 1 to Feb. 17, Dobratz said.
While some police departments in towns with a lot of commerce reported that shoplifting was a problem, others said despite a number of big stores, it wasn’t a major cause for concern.
Bristol police had 245 calls for shoplifting incidents in 2016 – not even one a day, said Lt. Richard Guerrera. “It’s not a big problem,” Guerrera said. “We respond to shoplifting incidents but it’s not taking up much of our time.”
New Britain police also deal with about 250 shoplifting incidents a year, said Lt. Jeanette Portalatin. “Our calls for shoplifting mostly come from the bigger stores with good loss prevention,” Portalatin said. “The little mom and pop stores probably have it but they don’t spot it like the bigger stores do. We don’t have too many big stores.
Berlin which has a Kohl’s department store, an Ocean State Job Lot, a Home Depot and a Stop & Shop, sees more car break-ins than shoplifting, said Deputy Chief John Klett. In fact, the number of reported shoplifting incidents has gone down from 59 in 2014 to 28 in 2016. “It’s gone down for the last three years,” Klett said. “A lot of it has to do with the loss prevention department at the store. Shoplifting at smaller stores are far and few between. We don’t really have a big problem.”
The man who dragged the Newington officer was found in Hartford a few days later. He is being held on unrelated charges until Newington police served him with an arrest warrant. Most shoplifting incidents in Newington aren’t quite as dangerous as the beer theft, Sgt. Christopher Perry said. ‘We have about 300 a year and very rarely do they end dramatically,” said Perry who estimated that Newington police deal with one shoplifting incident a day. “Usually when you get the call, loss prevention has the person detained or they have suspect information.”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or .