Retail theft is on the rise and New York small business owners are paying the price

Someone broke down the front door overnight and ripped out the cash drawer. The new security gates cost $2,300. The streets have become quieter after four nearby businesses were permanently closed during the pandemic, emboldening shoplifters. Two security guards resigned.

For Deborah Koenigsberger, who has worked in retail for three decades, keeping her two clothing stores open in Manhattan’s Flatiron District has never been so exhausting.

“As small businesses, we are currently skimmed in many ways,” Ms. Koenigsberger said. “I might as well leave the door to my store open and say, ‘Help yourself. “”

Its stores are among New York businesses struggling with a rise in crime that has resulted from the disruptions of the past two years. The pandemic has exacerbated job losses, mental illness and addiction, which law enforcement officials and business owners say has contributed to increasingly brazen behavior by people entering neighborhood stores, from shoplifting to muggings.

Debate over the underlying causes has also focused on New York’s bail laws, a police force distracted by a spike in shootings, and online marketplaces where organized retail crews can easily sell stolen goods.

As the city emerges from the public health crisis, officials say a sense of security is key to its economic recovery.

Last year, retail theft complaints were about 16% higher than in 2019, according to the New York Police Department. But arrest rates have fallen, with around 28% of complaints resulting in arrests last year, down from 48.5% in 2019.

A major crime index, including murder and felony assault, rose 7.5% over the same period, but still lower last year than in 2015.

Although New York remains one of the safest major cities in America, a poll released this month by Quinnipiac University found that 74% of its voters think crime is a “very serious” problem.

Security concerns could influence commuters’ willingness to get to work, whether that workplace is an investment bank or a bodega. Some small businesses close earlier in the evening because workers are afraid to stay late.

The effort to find a solution has led to contentious debate over the extent to which policing and incarceration should be part of the response. In interviews, some workers said they were hesitant to even call the police, fearing retaliation from the abuser or believing there was little the police could do to stop the problem.

The city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, is pushing to toughen the state’s bail laws, which were changed in 2019, allowing more arrested people to stay free while their cases were pending. Law enforcement officials blame the changes for making it harder to keep certain defendants, like serial shoplifters, in custody after an arrest.

“We can’t have a city where our pharmacies, bodegas and restaurants are leaving because people are walking into stores, grabbing what they want off the shelves and walking out,” Mr. Adams recently told the US legislature. State.

Lawmakers on the left accuse Mr. Adams of fearmongering, pointing out that crime in New York is still near historic lows and judges can still set bail in many cases. Gustavo Rivera, a Democratic senator representing the Bronx, said, “Communities are safer when they have more resources, not when they are over-policed.

Preliminary state recidivism data shows that about 2% of those released due to bail laws were rearrested before trial for a violent crime. But the data is incomplete and lacks detail, making it difficult to assess the impact of reforms.

Caught in the political tussle, the city’s small businesses are already facing a drop in foot traffic and labor shortages.

The issue has drawn particular attention in Manhattan, where Alvin Bragg, the new district attorney, has formed a task force focused on preventing shoplifting and robbery. It was announced after Mr Bragg was criticized by business leaders and police officials for issuing a memo about a more lenient approach to prosecution.

In Manhattan, home to the largest share of the city’s jobs, the worst neighborhoods include those that relied on commuters before the pandemic and those with a large concentration of addiction treatment centers, according to interviews with small business workers.

In some drugstore chains, even low-priced items are behind locked cases. Business owners say the risk of physical injury and the modest value of stolen goods often make it not worth trying to stop shoplifting.

The police department said one of the reasons the arrest rate dropped for retail robberies was because there were more robberies at stores without security guards ready to catch thieves inside. display.

During the pandemic, organized teams across the country have also increasingly targeted retailers, stealing large amounts of merchandise to resell online.

Shoplifting, a longstanding problem for small businesses, took on a more unpredictable form last year, according to Joseph Lorenzo, owner of Macson Shoes, a 45-year-old store in Washington Heights. He said more people have entered his store who appear to be on drugs or mentally unstable.

“The fear and unpredictability of these guys getting violent is what scares us the most,” Mr Lorenzo said.

As police focus on stemming gun violence, many small business owners feel left on their own.

Last summer, a man walked into the Monkey Cup, a Venezuelan cafe in Harlem, demanding free coffee, according to co-owner Laura Leonardi. After receiving one, he began to argue with Ms Leonardi’s husband and punched him in the face, video footage showed. The man then punched Ms Leonardi after she jumped off the counter. He fled before the police arrived.

In November, another man walked in naked while a child was in the store, refusing to leave. He came back two months later and broke a stool into pieces.

Two weeks ago, the man came back several times, until a barista pointed him out to a policeman who was in the cafe. The man was arrested, a scene which Ms Leonardi described as “horrible in every way”.

“I’m conflicted,” she said. “To send him to prison, you may be turning him into something worse.”

The consequences of theft can be a financial burden for small businesses, even when the amount stolen is small.

Julia Larock was working at Blue Marble Ice Cream, an Upper West Side ice cream parlor, in November when a man showed up twice in three days claiming to have a gun and demanding money. He took a total of $32. Each time, the store closed for the day as police searched for fingerprints and questioned employees.

The suspect, Joshua Tirado, 31, was arrested and a judge released him without bail on November 11. He returned to the store a few days later. Although he just looked around and left, Ms. Larock felt targeted and quit.

“You don’t know how a situation is going to escalate,” said Ms Larock, who now works at a start-up that advertises artwork.

Mr. Tirado was arrested again in December and charged with stealing jewelry from a Macy’s in Midtown. Prosecutors wanted a supervised release, which would have freed him without bail but with tapes and a potential referral to social services, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

A judge denied prosecutors’ request, setting bail at $15,000. But Mr. Tirado was released after a week without any supervision when prosecutors failed to produce the documents required to keep him in jail.

A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Society, which represents Mr Tirado, said his case “underscores the need for more comprehensive services”.

Angel Valdez, another Blue Marble employee, fears letting people shoplift could make the store more vulnerable. But he was also threatened when he tried to stop someone from stealing a shirt.

“I don’t have the luxury of quitting this job even though every day I’m scared of what’s to come,” said Mr. Valdez, who has a second job as a restaurant server.

Beyond the financial loss, employees must deal with the anxiety of returning to work after a traumatic incident.

Abdul Alhirsh has struggled to sleep since a man walked into his smoothie shop shortly after 6pm last month, pulled what looked like a handgun from his bag and demanded money. Mr. Alhirsh froze and gave her everything in the cashier’s cash box, about $500.

It was the first armed robbery Mr Alhirsh had suffered in 13 years working behind the counter at Health King near Times Square.

Corey Samerson, 23, was arrested for the robbery and charged with committing at least three other armed robberies in Manhattan in early January.

Mr. Samerson had just spent nearly four years in federal prison for a similar series of armed robberies. During his 2019 sentencing, he told the court he had tricked them into paying for the drugs.

In a letter to the judge in 2019, Mr Samerson’s mother said she had implored everyone – from church youth leaders to Mr Samerson’s probation officer – for help with his substance abuse, anger issues and suicidal thoughts.

“Here I am with a young man with so much potential but crying out for help,” she wrote, “and there are no resources.”

In the current case, Mr Samerson, who remains in custody, was ordered by a judge to receive medical treatment last month. His attorney declined to comment.

As Mr Alhirsh recovered from the robbery, he was again assaulted. Earlier this month he ran out of the store to arrest someone who had stolen a bottle of coconut water. The person’s accomplice pushed him to the sidewalk, video footage shows. It was around 9pm and no one was there to help. Mr Alhirsh got up in a daze, his hands bloody, and walked back into the store.

Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Jonah E. Bromwich contributed report.

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