First-time shoplifters won’t be charged by Toronto police in pilot project

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First-time shoplifters won’t be charged by Toronto police in pilot project


First-time shoplifters will no longer be prosecuted in two of Toronto’s busiest police divisions as part of a pilot project that, if successful, will go citywide.

The program — called Shop Theft — allows privately employed theft prevention officers to release an accused after the details of the incident are called in to a division, as opposed to waiting — sometimes for hours — for police to answer the low-priority calls.

The six-month pilot will run in divisions 51 and 52, which encompass the area south of Bloor St. from Spadina Ave. east to the Don River.

During that time, alleged offenders can be released for non-violent shoplifting incidents through the program as long as they meet certain criteria — they must be 18 years of age or older, the items they are accused of stealing are worth less than $1,000 and they have identification.

“The investigation is no different than the officer being there in person,” says Paul Rinkoff, a Toronto police staff sergeant who is in charge of the project.

“The investigation is going to mirror that, just over the phone,” he says. “There are a number of criteria where police will still attend and that includes if any party asks for police attending.”

Accused shoplifters who are released through Shop Theft won’t be charged, although Rinkoff notes that police reserve the right to lay a charge later by summons, depending on the circumstances of the crime.

Read more:

Letters to shoplifters threaten legal action if hundreds in damages aren’t paid — even if the goods are recovered

The pilot, which began Nov. 1, is part of the service’s efforts to modernize. The program will be reviewed at the 90-day-mark and then again at the end of the six months to determine if the TPS will implement it in all its divisions.

“What we’ve been trying to do through the modernization process is make sure that our police officers are where the public needs them the most,” says Meaghan Gray, acting director of corporate communications for the Toronto Police Service. “And maybe responding to … shoplifting calls — that can be held just as efficiently by a theft prevention officer partnered with us over the phone — allows us to reassign those officers to more pressing calls for service.”

The new procedures could lead to an increase in the number of accused shoplifters, says a U.S. academic, and to the increased use of a controversial practice by retailers called civil demand recovery letters, which threaten legal action if the accused doesn’t pay hundreds of dollars in punitive damages, even when the items are retrieved.

The letters are already in use in Canada, but are used more widely in the U.S. because of state legislation introduced there in the ’80s and ’90s, meant to decriminalize shoplifting, that allows retailers to go after accused shoplifters for damages civilly by way of the demand letters.

The result of the legislation was a sharp increase in the number of accused shoplifters, says Ryan Sullivan, a professor at the University of Nebraska, and retailers began to not only go after the accused for damages using the letters, but in court as well where the defendant could be ordered to pay the value of the stolen item if it’s damaged or not recovered.

“Most statutes in the U.S. permit such civil demands to be made even if the person was not found guilty of shoplifting. A mere accusation is enough,” says Sullivan. “If a person is acting suspiciously in a store, a security officer may detain them and interrogate them in a back room with no access to a phone or an attorney.

“During this interrogation, they are often required to provide their driver’s licence; from this they obtain their mailing address. Minors are asked for the name(s) and address of their parents as well,” says Sullivan. “This information is then entered into a database that is provided to, or sold to, one of the professional collection companies (that) generate and send these civil demand letters by the millions.”

Canada doesn’t have specific legislation that allows the use of demand letters, but lawyers adopted the practice here soon after the laws were passed in the U.S.

It’s not known how often the letters are sent out, but this year, Toronto had 16,667 shoplifting incidents reported to Toronto police as of October 30.

Here, an accused can sometimes wait hours for officers to attend, and if charged, are given a Form 9, which directs them to attend court at a later date. Offenders are often dealt with through the court’s Direct Accountability Office, where they receive sanctions that require them to donate money to a charity or attend a stop-shoplifting program before the charges can be stayed.

“Obviously if there’s violence involved or if violence is feared, they’re calling 911,” says Gray of store security.

For each arrest, theft prevention officers will be required to fill out a form, with details about the alleged occurrence and the accused, that will be forwarded to police. The person is also read their right to counsel, says Gray, and told they are being released. They’ll take with them a notice of apprehension that lists their name and why they were detained.

The form also stipulates that “a criminal summons may be obtained by the Toronto Police Service on that charge. The summons will be served on you at a later date, and it’s separate and apart from any civil proceedings that the victim, being the store, may commence against you,” she says.

Typically, criminal justice penalties are in place to deter others from committing a crime. Rinkoff says the ability under Shop Theft for police to charge an alleged offender at a later date should be enough to stop others from shoplifting.

Police forces in major cities around the world have been looking for ways to reduce their budgets. In London, British police don’t attend shoplifting incidents unless the stolen items are valued at 200 pounds or more, roughly $340 in Canadian dollars.

“This program is designed to process minor retail thefts in a more efficient manner,” says Rinkoff.

“It’s great for the stores because they gain efficiencies,” he says. “They’re able to have faster turnover, so their loss prevention officers are able to get back on the floor, protecting the property in their retail store.”

Peel Regional police have run a shop theft release program with large chain retailers since 1997.

More than 1,000 people were released through their program in 2017, about a quarter of all alleged shoplifting incidents in the region reported to police. Officers were required to attend the remaining incidents because the accused didn’t fit the criteria for release, which are similar to those being used by the TPS and include that the alleged offender has to be at least 18 years old and hasn’t been released through the program in the past 12 months.

The program has been a success, says Sgt. Mike Lockington, who is in charge of crime prevention for Peel Regional police.

“Stores benefit because loss prevention officers can get back on the floor looking for more offenders,” he says. “The less of a drain on resources for police the better and the same for the retailers.”





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