Caught Red Handed

Apr 16, 2018

In 2016, Sgt. Greg Woodcox noticed a spike in the number of transient, homeless and drug-dependent downtown residents caught shoplifting on surveillance video in Kelowna, B.C.

"I knew almost everyone in the photos that were sent around the detachment for identification," says Woodcox, officer in charge of Kelowna RCMP's Downtown Enforcement Unit, which patrols the downtown core every day. "I wanted to find a way to use my knowledge to make a difference, and I wanted to hold people accountable for what they were doing."

To bring more thieves to justice, Woodcox enlisted the help of Cst. Kyle Boffy and started the Kelowna Commercial Theft Project — a co-ordinated partnership to target chronic shoplifters.

Working with local major retailers such as Safeway, Save on Foods, Superstore and Walmart, Woodcox and Boffy created a group email connecting stores to each other, and to the RCMP.

They also held training days with store Loss Prevention Officers (LPOs), who are responsible for store security, preventing theft and handling other misdemeanors. Boffy talked to the LPOs about the requirements for building a case to go to court, and gave them a template to provide consistent evidence to police.

"In cases like shoplifting, where we rely on partners for evidence, we have to recognize the value they bring to the table and actively engage them," says Boffy. "It makes the process a lot more streamlined."

Preventing theft

Along with helping identify shoplifting suspects, the Commercial Theft Project is also used proactively to prevent thefts. When cold and sinus medication kept disappearing off pharmacy shelves in Kelowna earlier this year, Boffy took notice.

"It's something we keep an eye on because some medications contain pseudoephedrine — a stimulant drug that can be used to make meth," he says.

Within the span of a week, the detachment had logged multiple thefts of medications containing the stimulant, and determined the drugs were being targeted.

In an effort to stop the thefts, Boffy immediately reached out to partner retailers through the commercial theft group email. After a brief discussion, retailers made a decision to move the cold medication behind the pharmacy counter, and out of reach from criminals.

"When we see trends in thefts, this helps us address them before they get too large," says Boffy. "The open lines of communication help us work proactively to stop crimes before they can happen again."

Streamlined identification

Since Kelowna RCMP started the Commercial Theft Project in June 2017, suspect identification has skyrocketed to more than 80 per cent, up from 50 per cent. The group email, LPO training and Woodcox's knowledge of the local transient population has resulted in more than 300 closed cases this year.

"There's been murder, assault and fraud charges laid based on our LPO work and camera footage," says Kyle Longbotham, loss prevention manager for Loblaws in Kelowna. "Word has gotten out that if you're trying to steal from Superstore or any other store on board, you're going to get identified and caught."

The project also helps keep LPOs safe, according to Longbotham. He says his store recently adopted a hands-off approach when dealing with shoplifters.

"We have 10 to 15 confrontations with people every week, and now we let them go if they're violent or run away because we know Boffy and Woodcox will be able to catch them down the line," says Longbotham.

The project has also improved relationships between the RCMP and retailers. With all shoplifting tips going directly to Woodcox and Boffy through the commercial theft email, retailers know that each case will be followed up.

"If they send me a photo, within a couple minutes I often know who it is, and I'll have someone in custody within the week," says Woodcox. "It gives us credibility. It shows retailers and the public that whether it's for a major crime or minor crime, the Kelowna RCMP cares. If you call us, something will be done."

 

By Amelia Thatcher - RCMP Gazette Magazine- Vol 80, No 2