The looting of Toronto’s vulnerable LCBO outlets has spiralled to epidemic proportions — undergoing more than a threefold increase over the past five years — and the latest figures show it accounts for nearly half of all shoplifting incidents at the most frequently hit retail outlets in the city.
The issue of brazen, broad-daylight liquor theft, quantified for the first time two weeks ago in a Toronto Star investigation showing the city’s LCBO shops have been targeted more than 9,000 times since 2014, was sobering enough.
But a deeper dive into raw shoplifting data obtained from the Toronto Police Service, isolating the year-over-year increases — together with corroborating accounts from more than 20 LCBO whistleblowers who have approached the Star since the first story was published — now provides a far more detailed understanding of the scope and acceleration of the problem.
Among the revelations:
- In 2014, police data shows, LCBO outlets accounted for just over a tenth of the shoplifting indicents at the top 100 most frequently targeted addresses of shoplifting incidents in Toronto. By 2017, it was a third. And halfway through 2018, the most recent data in the Star’s possession shows LCBOs accounted for nearly half of shoplifting incidents, with liquor heists happening more than three times as often as they did in 2014.
- The summer of 2018, where the police data ends, saw a rash of a new and ever more brazen heists at several Toronto LCBOs, involving groups of thieves bypassing the display shelves altogether and instead plundering employee-only warehouse areas, where they helped themselves to entire sealed cases of premium liquors. The repeated raids on LCBO backrooms came as a shock to many anxiety-ridden frontline workers, five of whom told the Star they now fear what they may encounter as they go about what once was the simple, safe task of restocking shelves.
- As those heists unfolded, in July 2018, an outraged downtown Toronto school principal sounded alarms with LCBO management and the newly elected Ford government, relaying information that children as young as 13 were stealing liquor “with impunity” and calling for an increase in store security. Mark Lasso, principal of Church Street Junior Public School, told the Star he received no response from Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, whose writ includes the LCBO.
The initial response from LCBO management to Lasso came via email from spokesperson Ryan McCann, who said, “Theft, and in this case, underage theft, is extremely concerning, especially since we make every effort to ensure alcohol stays out of the hands of minors.” But despite a follow-up discussion with a senior Toronto-area retail manager, Lasso told the Star he has seen no evidence of enhanced security at the LCBO locations that concern him most.
“It’s disappointing, sad and greatly concerning that this is continuing when measures could be put into place to prevent it,” said Lasso. “The cost of extra security seems to be the only hurdle — a cost that the LCBO could easily afford. As a public trust, I believe they can and need to do better. I think our kids are worth the cost.”
- Though the police data obtained by the Star speaks strictly to theft at LCBOs in Toronto, a score of frontline LCBO workers from cities throughout Ontario contacted us in response to the initial investigation to say that theft often goes unreported when stores are busy, despite LCBO rules requiring staff to report every incident, both internally and to local police. “It’s both frightening and depressing,” said one. “But in the absence of security and with long lineups at the till, you have to tend to customers before you can get to the paperwork. And sometimes it just doesn’t get done.”
(The Star analyzed data supplied by the Toronto police through a freedom-of-information request for the 100 addresses with the most shoplifting occurrences from 2014 to 2018 by year. An initial request for the top 500 per year was denied because the police service said it couldn’t weed out private residences from an address list that long.)
While LCBO management, in its initial response to the Star, acknowledged a general rise in shop theft at liquor stores in urban areas of Ontario, it did not address questions relating to the high-volume thefts described in the story. The Star went back to the LCBO for this follow-up, but the company said it had no comment.
Other frontline LCBO workers describe a morale-crushing reality in which many dread reporting for work. Several told of being threatened with thieves brandishing syringes as they filled loot bags. Another described a thief who “threw human feces” during a heist.
One broad theme among LCBO workers in contact with the Star: fear that the crisis is escalating toward the likelihood that someone, whether staff or even a customer, will pay a fatal price in the absence of more robust security or police response.
“I have been witness to multiple incidents where brave, if foolhardy, customers have chased thieves out of the store and come back to us with large bags full of product,” one frontliner said.
“By policy, and not exactly unjustly, we have our hands tied. And some of us aren’t necessarily into the idea of playing vigilante. Yet we feel the heat from customers for our perceived apathy and inaction.
“We are grateful for public support. I don’t think I need remind anybody that when a shoplifter walks out with something like $800 worth of 12-year-old Glenfiddich stuffed into a bag slung over his back like some miscreant Santa Claus, that is taxpayer money walking out the door with him. If the police won’t respond to these incidents and with the LCBO so seldom wont to prevent them, a store-level employee can’t do a lot.”
Indeed, a “no touch/no chase” policy on shoplifters is the prevailing norm not just at the LCBO but throughout modern-day retail — and few can reasonably expect otherwise from regular shop-floor workers, who never signed up as security. Without exception, every LCBO worker in contact with the Star points to more and better security as the primary solution.
The problem in Toronto also coincides with a police directive early in 2018 that informed LCBO management police would no longer respond in person to liquor theft unless the perpetrators were still inside the store. The theft data the Star is revealing today indicates LCBO theft in the city was at an all-time high as that decision was made.
Police officials in the city have emphasized the need to prioritize violent crime. And, as detailed in the Star’s Dec. 29 investigation, the service is rebounding with a new pilot program at 14 Division dedicated to solving LCBO theft. Though still in its early days, the team at 14 Division landed a major bust just before Christmas, arresting two individuals allegedly involved in a liquor theft ring of as many as 12 people.
Yet within LCBO circles, in the wake of the Star’s first report, insiders have sent distressing signals suggesting LCBO management are currently preoccupied with locating the author of an anonymous plea for help mailed to the Star, which triggered our initial investigation.
“Please keep me anonymous as they already have started a witch hunt in our district looking for your first source,” wrote one Toronto-area frontline worker. “This story is so deep and again thanks for your reporting. We are all stressed and anxious every damn shift.”
All current LCBO workers providing information to the Star are running the risk of instant dismissal. But the gag does not extend to former LCBO employees, some of whom have reached out to say on the record what active staff cannot.
“One thing I want to say is I really want to commend the person who sent that letter because whoever it was, they had a lot of courage,” said Karen Pound, who retired three years ago after a 35-year career with the LCBO, first as a cashier and later as an assistant manager.
“He or she put their job in jeopardy. Because that’s how bad it is. Everybody is afraid.”
Pound, who worked at several Hamilton-area LCBOs, said that “theft was brutal” as much as a decade ago — but largely confined to “small-time thefts” of one or two bottles. But the modern-day reality is that such minor theft is increasingly interspersed with brazen, big-bag heists that can involve duffel bags filled with premium liquors.
“The problem is all stores are kind of set up the same,” said Pound. “So when you come through that turnstile, you have all that high-end stuff all on one wall — easy access. The people come in, they know when there’s a shift change, they know peak times and when not to come in. They watch, they scan. And if there’s nobody on the floor, they know exactly when to come in. They have that whole wall that they can scoop and go.”
And the way stores are laid out, she said, leaves cashiers, and customer service staff, with their backs to the door.
“As an assistant manager, I would be in the office,” where there is one-way glass, said Pound. “So I could see everything.” She said she witnessed many people stealing even when her colleagues could not. “I could see the cashier couldn’t see it, because they had their back to it.”
Stores often have a single security guard, who Pound said is “just a deterrence.” If a store has enough reported incidents of theft, as well as video evidence, the LCBO will send in plainclothes security guards to catch thieves, according to another longtime LCBO employee.
Much of the LCBO’s guard work falls to an outside company — G4S Canada — which commands one of the country’s largest security services. But frontline LCBO workers, many of whom are employed as casual part-timers, tell the Star the security help routinely shifts from store to store, “almost like putting fingers in a dike that has too many holes and too few fingers,” in the words of one LCBO source.
A few months ago, an LCBO employee witnessed seven people filling shopping carts full of liquor and bolting out the door in single file. Staff who went outside to record licence plate information were verbally reprimanded, according to an email sent by the employee.
Workers who try to stop thefts at the stores can be subject to suspensions, said another veteran. “The employees care too much. People who try and stop it get disciplined,” he said. Videos of the thefts are used to punish the employees who interfere. “The wrong people are getting punished,” said the employee.
“We shouldn’t go too easy on the police — they have a role in this,” another frontline Toronto-area LCBO told the Star. “But it’s important to understand that the theft is becoming more sophisticated.
“In one recent theft, the cashier could see that a kind of bait-and-switch operation was underway. The G4 security went for the bait — going after the one guy — and as soon as they did, three big thieves hit us hard. They went for the bait and they missed the freaking muskellunge.”
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites
Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data reporter. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org