Target Worried About ‘Optics’ of Retail Crime, Says California Sheriff

Weeks after it said it’s closing stores because of organized retail crime, Target was criticized by a California law enforcement official for prioritizing public relations over public safety.

Sacramento County Sheriff Jim Cooper said the big-box retailer interfered when his department tried to stop shoplifting at one of its stores. He took to X, formerly known as Twitter, last week to vent about Target allegedly telling sheriff’s deputies to intervene in criminal activity outside of the store to keep the issues to a minimum.

More from Sourcing Journal

Cooper said property crimes detectives from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s office had been dispatched to one of the city’s Target locations several times because of shoplifting. The department coordinated with Target to set up a sting operation to address the problem, but at the briefing, Cooper and other deputies were told by Target’s head of regional security that they couldn’t engage with suspects inside the store.

Cooper said they were told they “could not handcuff suspects in the store,” and if they were to arrest a suspect, “they wanted us to [process] them outside… behind the store… in the rain.”

“We were told they didn’t want to create a scene inside the store and have people film it and put it on social media,” Cooper said. “They didn’t want negative press. Unbelievable.”

“We don’t tell big retail how to do their jobs, they shouldn’t tell us how to do ours,” Cooper wrote.

Cooper told Sourcing Journal that retailers like Target should take law enforcement’s lead when it comes to addressing shoplifting and organized retail crime. “This is 100 percent about optics—they’re worried about their image,” he said.

He continued, “We were coordinating on a local level, then corporate got involved, and that’s where it went awry,” noting, “There has always been a disconnect between corporate and what goes on at the ground level.”

Many retailers have non-confrontation policies when it comes to employees or loss prevention officers dealing with shoplifters, Cooper said. Some even tell staff not to call the police when thefts occur to avoid making a scene or going viral on social media. “We’ve talked to a lot of employees at a wide variety of big-box retailers,” he said. “They’re told if somebody’s stealing and walking out, leave them alone—don’t confront them.”

Cooper said this hands-off approach has “exacerbated this whole situation,” empowering criminals to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat. “The new norm now is to go into a store and have items behind plexiglass—to have to push a button to have someone come and give it to you, and that is insane,” he said. “From the law enforcement view, it’s allowed these individuals that are involved in these retail thefts to feel that they have no accountability,” he added. “They can do whatever they want. We’re seeing that throughout the retail industry. And it’s unfortunate.”

Organized retail crime rings typically target handbags, jewelry, sunglasses, and apparel, according to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) most recent Retail Security Survey. A retailer like Target can be a bull’s-eye for thieves, Cooper said. Earlier this year Target said it sees shrink driving a $500-million impact this year, versus $800 million in 2022.

Cooper said Target has reached out to his office to mend their relationship since his tweet made headlines. “I’m willing to work with them, because we want a safe and secure environment, and we want to be their partners,” he said. “But they’ve got a big piece of this responsibility.”

According to Cooper, a former state assemblymember, legislation is the key to fighting organized retail crime.

California law enforcement isn’t happy that Proposition 47, passed in 2014, raised the felony threshold for retail theft from $400 to $950. By contrast, Proposition 20, introduced in 2020, would have lowered the felony threshold to $250. The bill saw support from law enforcement unions and the California Grocers Association, which donated $2 million to the cause, but not from the general retail sector and failed with voters. “There were bills put through the legislature that [retail] did not support, that would have changed things,” he said. “This whole issue has taken on a life of its own, because the big-box retailers did not want to get involved.”

Sacramento was among the top U.S. cities impacted by organized retail crime in 2022, tied for No. 7 with Chicago, according to NRF. Los Angeles is No. 1, followed by San Francisco and Oakland, making California a hotbed for retail crime. Cooper hopes the state addresses the issue head on with retailers lending support.

“They talk about losses, they talk about shrinkage, they’re closing stores and putting up plexiglass—I mean, if you have a chance to stop this, why wouldn’t you do it?” he said. “Especially in California—because where California goes, the nation goes,” he added. “If you can nip [it] in the bud here and change that narrative, it changes it all.”

Target didn’t respond to a request for comment. It reported earnings Wednesday that showed strong profits despite sales declines.