Stores, cops both unhappy with liquor theft regulation

Retailers say reporting thefts puts them at a competitive disadvantage; law enforcement argues the rule lacks teeth

Staff writerMarch 26, 2014 

State Rep. Chris Hurst says just the threat of a state crackdown on liquor theft has pushed many stores to rethink how they handle booze.

He figures grocers will be under even more pressure to prevent theft now that lawmakers have approved new regulations responding to anecdotal reports of a wave of thefts since voters privatized liquor in 2011.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the plan into law Thursday, giving liquor regulators authority to force theft-prone stores to tighten security, hire more staff, improve record keeping or move display shelves.

“If people won’t bring that under control, they could lose their liquor license,” said Hurst, a Democrat from Enumclaw.

But the new enforcement power applies only to stolen merchandise that ends up in the hands of minors. The law kicks in if local police can build a case linking underage drinking to shoplifting from a particular store.

Only after police have at least two reports in six months of kids acquiring stolen liquor could the state Liquor Control Board get involved.

Even then, the state involvement would start off with a “consultation,” followed by an attempt at a voluntary effort at improvement before the board could impose new requirements such as moving liquor away from a door or hiring extra employees.

Hurst argues the process won’t be cumbersome. Liquor bottles can be tracked by bar codes to their source.

“I was a cop for 25 years. It’s fairly easy to get kids to tell you” where their booze came from, he said. Police can find out just from reading the kids’ Facebook pages, he said.

Neither police nor stores are entirely happy with what came out of the Legislature this month.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said it’s a good start, but lawmakers should have mandated that stores report theft data.

Companies have largely refused to give theft numbers for competitive reasons.

“This is not tomatoes or lettuces or boxes of Wheaties,” said Sen. Steve Conway, a Tacoma Democrat and an advocate for mandatory reporting of liquor thefts. “This is a controlled substance.”

The police group’s executive director, Mitch Barker, said a corporate grocery executive may view the amount lost to shoplifting as preferable to the cost of tightening security.

Stores’ bottom lines are incentive enough to prevent thefts, said Jan Gee, a lobbyist who represents medium-sized grocers that she said have profit margins as small as 1 percent.

“When you lose a $20 bottle of booze, there’s only 1 percent profit in that for the grocery store, so you’ve got to sell a whole lot of groceries to make up for that loss,” Gee said.

Gee and Barker agree, though, that thefts are a problem and that organized rings are responsible. “These crime rings are out of control in our state along the I-5 corridor,” Gee said.

“That’s our belief,” Barker said, “but it’s not based on numbers, because we can’t get the numbers.”

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