With this article I’m presenting my second feature on crime prevention strategies in less than a month. This isn’t typical. But then, the sort of criminality urban America has countenanced these last few years hasn’t been typical either, though it’s rapidly becoming so. Given the double-digit year-to-year increases in violent and property crime, let alone in shoplifting, I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be offering more articles in the months (years?) ahead that feature crime prevention strategies embedded in the built environment. I’m so confident that this will be a common feature that I’m getting ready to introduce the first new keyword in quite some time: security, which is now part of the drop-down under “Topics”.
I could wax philosophical about all the reasons American cities are witnessing a meteoric rise in shoplifting. What used to consist primarily of isolated, impromptu instances has turned into something much more preconceived: a sort of flash-mob approach where multiple miscreants manifest at once, overwhelm security (if security is even legally authorized to thwart it), and pillage the shelves of high-value items in full view of the other customers. They steal only to resell the items on the streets. Certain stores are prime targets: drug stores like Walgreens are favored for their ubiquity and access to coveted cosmetics, detergent, and over-the-counter medicine (let alone prescription drugs); luxury department stores (Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus are far less common than Walgreens) for the high value of the items. COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns saw a brief reprieve in the year-after-year increase in organized retail theft, but once things started re-opening in late 2020, shoplifting spiked again.
It’s easy—perhaps even facile—to blame lax criminal penalties. In 2014, California notoriously raised the threshold in value to nearly $1,000 for what constitutes felony level shoplifting—a policy that has elicited horrible consequences to retail throughout the state. Many other states have enacted similarly lenient thresholds, most likely in an attempt to reduce prison overcrowding or the stigma that a felony condition imposes on a person’s ability to find work. But it has made it easier for criminals to get away with repeated theft of most goods they can fit within their arms and run out, Neiman Marcus notwithstanding. (Theft of one blouse is probably a felony.) As someone more intrigued by physical tactics (bottom-up) than top-down policy, I couldn’t help but notice way back in spring of 2020 how the mandate of mask-wearing would make it easier for criminals to maneuver in broad daylight, normalizing the best means of avoiding detection: their faces. Now it’s summer 2022, and while few places have new mask mandates, the wearing of a mask has become so routine that a person can walk into a store with a balaclava without raising much suspicion. And he or she can leave with a bag full of stolen goods and no one really knows what the thief looks like. The growing trend of incentivizing reusable bags may help reduce unecological plastic and paper bag use, but it means customers can stuff numerous goods into canvas bags that are both huge and opaque. If the store only dispenses of its plastic bags at the check-out, a person can walk in and out with washable bags, completely undetected with all that extra booty.
These subtle, seemingly innocuous cultural shifts have prompted new prevention tools. And I encountered them at a recent trip to a mall in Maryland.
I’m going to leave this mall anonymous because I don’t want to either unfairly associate it with shoplifting, nor negatively call attention to its good-faith efforts to prevent it. Suffice it to say it’s an increasing rarity in 2022: an economically healthy mall with all of its anchor department stores fully occupied. How rare is that?! On an early Saturday evening, some of the larger, nationally recognized in-line tenants revealed a distinct trend.
In some malls, H&M is a large enough presence that it gets classified as a junior anchor. That’s not the case here, but it is (along with its floundering fast-fashion counterpart Forever 21) one of the largest in-lines. Big enough for two entrances. But here’s the second:
The gate is pulled down. And H&M is hardly alone in this practice.
Barely visible on the pulldown gate is a handwritten sign: “We are open – please use other gate”. Entrance is through Express Men.
Victoria’s Secret is doing it as well:
Even some of the smaller shops have caught on.
I’m not sure if it’s the case at this or even most malls, but apparently the roll-down gate is lucrative industry all on its own, with a variety of widths and materials available. I have a sneaking suspicion that, if a tenant deems the existing protection insufficient, the mall manager cedes the responsibility of upgrades to the one paying the rent. But that doesn’t explain why so many tenants at this Maryland mall have kept one gate open and another closed.
So what’s the deal? It’s not profound; given the subject of this article, it’s glaringly obvious. Preventing all but one means of egress allows easier monitoring of the one open gate, to prevent shoplifting. It’s a practice some malls implemented back in the peak of COVID-19 as a means of crowd control once governments had lifted the most restrictive lockdowns, but retained strict social distancing prerogatives. Stores could open a single gate, force people to queue in the mall’s main hallway, and admit them selectively while keeping count to avoid running afoul of the extra-strict maximum occupancy laws. And malls like this one saw the advantage of applying such scrutiny. It helps them hunt down shoplifting.
I’m not convinced this approach is going achieve that much. After all, malls themselves lack law enforcement capability; the majority of malls feature unarmed security that can merely detain criminals until licensed law enforcement arrives. Some malls may prohibit this practice, not only because it looks uninviting, but it violates the principles of fire safety by deliberately eliminating a perfectly good means of egress. (This is a bit of a stretch: exiting a store like Victoria’s Secret for the mall hallway hardly constitutes a safe evacuation.) Meanwhile, as far as store policy is concerned, most retailers strongly discourage their employees (outside of hired security) from trying to stop shoplifters themselves. As organized retail theft becomes more prevalent, the likelihood that the criminals have pre-planned their acts (including with defensive weaponry) only escalates. Too bad. But the built environment is filled with signals; the very fact that these stores keep one of their gates pulled offers a hint to prospective plunderers: “We’ve got our eyes on the exit. Don’t even think about it. Try the Macy’s instead.”