Since private stores started selling hard liquor in June, at least 20 teenagers have been charged with stealing spirits from Thurston County grocery stores, a number juvenile prosecutor Wayne Graham calls only “the tip of the iceberg” and an indication of a larger problem.
After passage of Initiative 1183 — which eliminated state-run liquor stores and allowed private liquor sales across Washington — local chains and big-box retailers have made liquor too accessible to would-be juvenile shoplifters, Graham said.
“Alcohol use by students on school property has gone up, and it’s not beer,” the prosecutor said.
“Obviously our focus is on kids not having access to unlawful substances. We don’t think stores are taking any steps to minimize the access that juveniles have to alcohol, primarily, through theft.”
Graham said he cannot recall a single case involving a minor accused of shoplifting beer or wine since the new law authorizing liquor sales at grocery stores went into effect on June 1.
Several Capital High School students agreed with Graham’s assessment that teens are taking advantage of it being easier to shoplift liquor.
“You’re not an automatic suspect when you walk in a grocery store,” said one student interviewed Tuesday in the school parking lot.
Another student admitted he’s on probation after he was caught stealing liquor from a downtown grocery store. The teen said he took the liquor to sell to other students — not to drink it himself.
“I know kids who are doing it,” he said of shoplifting liquor. “It’s easy.”
Retailers asked by The Olympian about the problem of liquor thefts by minors either did not respond or said they were working on ways to minimize shoplifting.
As for the size of the problem, the Washington State Organized Retail Crime Alliance indicated about $18,000 to $20,000 in liquor thefts — by adults as well as by minors — took place from mid-September to the end of October, according to the state Liquor Control Board’s enforcement and education chief, Justin Nordhorn.
Officials at the alliance could not be reached for comment.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs recently sent a letter to the Liquor Control Board, asking it to require retailers to keep track of and report liquor thefts. The association said the sale of spirits by retailers “is resulting in increased access to alcohol by youth under 21 years of age.”
The police reports and criminal charges generated by teens stealing liquor understate the scope of the problem, said Graham and others.
“We’re only catching a small percent of what’s happening,” Graham said. “We are not getting all of the alcohol-related incidents referred for criminal charges.”
Local police, youth advocates and school officials agreed with Graham’s criticisms.
“We have definitely seen an increase of thefts of hard alcohol from the stores, especially by juveniles,” Tumwater police detective Jen Kolb said, “more than likely because hard liquor was not made readily available to juveniles prior to the passing of the new law.”
“Additionally,” Kolb said, “we have noted an increase in alcohol-related reports by the schools, and this has become a proliferating problem that needs to be addressed.”
The number of alcohol-related incidents routed to the juvenile prosecutor’s office has gone up in the three largest Thurston County school districts — North Thurston, Olympia and Tumwater — since liquor privatization, Graham said.
But school officials in Tumwater and Olympia said they had not noticed a marked increase in alcohol-related incidents involving students since June 1.
North Thurston School District officials said they have taken steps to deal with the problem, including speaking with managers of the Safeway store on Martin Way near North Thurston High School, spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve said.
“Our main concern is for the health and safety of the kids,” she said.
Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts said he recently spoke during a Senate work session about the public safety issues raised by liquor thefts at retailers, including by teens.
“Law enforcement continues to feel the impact of the privatization of liquor in our state,” he said. “At a time when we are strained by a lack of resources, we are faced with addressing another community issue that is not directly supported by revenue at the state level.
“Most concerning is the risk to our youth who now have even greater access to hard alcohol replacing consumption of lower alcoholic beverages like beer.”
In an email to The Olympian, Safeway public affairs director Sara Osborne said the company is working on the problem of minors stealing from its store near North Thurston High School.
School officials and police have said they are concerned that the store’s liquor is sold in the same aisle as soft drinks and energy drinks where students congregate.
Phone calls to Safeway’s corporate office asking for general comments about liquor thefts by minors went unreturned.
“There is not a lot we want to say on record because of the security sensitivity of the issue,” she wrote, “but please know that we have a meeting scheduled very soon with Olympia police, Lacey police, our loss-prevention director and the store manager to discuss the situation and our potential tools to prevent this type of occurrence in the future.”
Lacey police Lt. Phil Comstock said the department has been in contact with Safeway’s managers, and they have been working to ease the school district’s concerns about liquor being sold on shelves close to energy and soft drinks.
“They want to do everything they can to prevent theft and access to underage people,” Comstock said.
Calls to the corporate offices of Fred Meyer and Top Food & Drug requesting comments on whether liquor privatization has increased teen shoplifting of spirits at their stores went unreturned.
But Joel Benoliel, senior vice president of Costco, the Kirkland-based chain that helped bankroll the initiative that took alcohol out of state control, said the argument that more teens will have access to liquor because of privatization is “specious.”
“Teenagers have always had access to alcohol,” he said, pointing out that about 30 states allow grocery stores and retailers to sell spirits.
Though even one teen stealing liquor is too many, the number of youths doing it because of privatization is “statistically insignificant,” Benoliel said.
However, a police report from a liquor theft case in Olympia suggests privatization has resulted in more alcohol consumption at local high schools.
The June 13 report details the arrests of a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old accused of stealing a bottle of whiskey at the Martin Way Safeway. In the report, manager David Kipp tells an Olympia police officer the teens told him the problem is widespread.
“The boys told him (the manager) that ‘everyone’ at North Thurston High School is stealing liquor from Safeway,” the report states. The manager said one of the teens “told him it was his intention to sell this liquor to other kids from the school.”
A police officer could smell liquor on one of the teens, who told the officer he had been drinking before school with seven or eight other students in the school’s south parking lot, the report states. Both teens also told the officer “they realized it was wrong to steal, but many of the students have been stealing alcohol from the store because it is easy to do so,” according to the report.
ON THE SHELVES
The issue of access is of paramount concern for Graham and others.
Stores typically keep cigarettes behind a glass case on a shelf behind a cashier, “but if you want to buy a bottle of tequila, it’s right across the aisle from the Doritos,” Graham said.
Some outlets place plastic locks on top of liquor caps, but they can easily be defeated with a screwdriver, he noted.
At the Martin Way Safeway, liquor and single-serving energy drinks and sodas recently were stocked in adjacent aisles. School-age children traveling in groups and wearing backpacks were lined up in the aisle, grabbing energy drinks. Surveillance cameras kept an eye on the area where liquor was sold.
The school district has asked the store’s managers not to stock liquor near the energy drinks, but Safeway’s corporate office has yet to respond to the district, Schrieve said.
To help deter teen shoplifting of liquor, with Safeway’s permission, the school district has brought in security staff members to patrol the store, Schreive said. That seems to “have made a difference,” she said.
Another idea, Graham suggested, is having stores sell liquor in a separate area, with a single entrance and exit so that employees could more easily monitor who belongs there and who doesn’t.
Kevin Stormans, owner of Ralph’s Thriftway and Bayview Thriftway in downtown Olympia, said he has no data indicating a significant increase in teens stealing liquor since I-1183 passed
But, he added, “I don’t want to create easier access for minors or any other shoplifters.” He said he is experimenting with ways to deter liquor thefts.
At Bayview Thriftway, for example, customers wanting to buy liquor must enter through a single access point, near the cash registers, so cashiers can keep an eye on who is there.
He said he’s considering requiring customers intending to buy liquor to leave it with cashiers and then continue with their shopping for other items.
At both of his stores, surveillance cameras are placed in the areas where liquor is sold, he added.
Stormans said he would oppose any requirement that grocery stores place liquor in separate areas away from other food items. Big chains could afford to do that, he said, but small, locally owned stores such as his would be at a competitive disadvantage. He said he looked at selling liquor at a separate area at Ralph’s Thriftway but that it was too expensive.
At Costco, Benoliel said, shoplifting of liquor is not an issue because most of the store’s members are at least 18, plus employees check customers’ receipts as they leave the store.
The state Liquor Control Board is not working on rules that would require grocery stores to make liquor less accessible to minors, spokesman Brian Smith said.
THE STORES’ RESPONSIBILITIES
Local stores benefiting from legalization of private liquor sales have a responsibility to the community to keep liquor out of the hands of minors, Graham said.
“They’re there to make their money,” he said. “The state gave them the ability to make their money with no real limit in how they’re going to make their money with alcohol sales.”
The public health issues that likely would result from liquor being more readily available to underage shoplifters was among the reasons some groups opposed I-1183, said Jim Cooper, executive director of Together, a local organization that fights teen violence and substance abuse.
“The stores have a responsibility to do what they can,” said Cooper, an Olympia city councilman and a board member of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention. Given the money the stores now make from liquor sales, they “certainly can’t argue that they don’t have the resources” to make liquor less accessible to minors, Cooper said.
Benoliel said he believes opponents of privatization are making an issue of liquor shoplifting by teens because they want to try to repeal the new law.
“You have people who are sore losers and are trying to make a political point,” he said.
Graham took issue with Benoliel’s comments.
He said it was “patently false” to assert that young people don’t have easier access to liquor now that the state-run liquor stores are closed and liquor is available at grocery stores and retail stores across the state.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445