MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Frustration is mounting as businesses in Memphis are battling an increase in retail theft. According to new data WREG Investigators uncovered, there’s been more reports of shoplifting so far this year compared to previous years.
On April 6, police were called to a CVS on Park Avenue. The store was still open for business, and two men were accused of stealing snacks and hygiene products before getting away.
At that point in the year, police already took 48 reports of someone shoplifting in just that block, and more than 2,200 shoplifting reports across the city.
“Now it’s just blatant. They’re walking out with shopping carts with products,” Ashley Harris said.
Her family owns and operates Stepherson’s and Superlo Foods. She told WREG Investigators she penned a letter to politicians this summer pleading for help.
New data we uncovered shows a spike in shoplifting cases. So far this year, you can see, MPD took more than 5,800 reports of shoplifting.
When you compare the same time to previous years, it’s the highest number since 2019.
“For each one of those people, there is a story behind it. There’s some circumstance in their life that brought them to this point where they feel the need to do this kind of shoplifting,” Shelby County District attorney Steve Mulroy said.
Mulroy said his office is trying something new. They’re partnering with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys to launch a theft intervention program aimed at the non-violent, low-level theft offenses.
“If it’s a misdemeanor amount of shoplifting, then for participating stores, we will funnel those people into an alternate system. It won’t be a regular court system,” Mulroy said.
Instead, they’ll focus on root causes like drug addiction, unmet mental health issues or poverty.
“Or maybe one of opportunity or similar circumstances,” said Tracye Jones with the DA’s office.
Jones said they will figure out what is driving the person to steal and create an individual plan to connect the person to the right services.
The APA launched the pilot program in four other cities, stating it’s providing prosecutors with a “set of tools to identify and address the needs.” It added “quality-of-life issues disproportionately affect low-income households and persons of color, which can exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities when these individuals come in contact with the criminal justice system.”
The program in Shelby County will start out with business owners who opt in. The DA’s office hasn’t said who’s signed on yet.
What we do know, if the person completes the program, the charge is wiped from their record. If the person doesn’t complete the program, their case will go back into the regular court system
“I think we have to make sure we execute with fidelity. This has to be very intense, because you are attempting to change the way a person sees the world. That doesn’t happen overnight,” DeAndre Brown said.
Brown is the Shelby County Office of Reentry director and founded the nonprofit, LifeLine to Success, which helps former inmates re-enter society.
He said there has to be intensive intervention and commitment in order for this to work.
“Are we attempting to truly regain our neighbors? If we are truly attempting to regain our neighbors, then we have to put resources in places that allow them to be of value in their future,” he said.
National data shows 48 percent of shoplifters are repeat offenders.
“That’s the revolving door I’m really concerned about. What we need to do is intervene in their lives, address the underlying needs, so they won’t offend again,” Mulroy said.
The DA’s office said it’s been meeting with business owners to get feedback and will be collecting data and tracking progress
Business owners have said every time someone walks out of the store without paying, it falls on other customers. Prices rise. Insurance rates go up. It becomes difficult to operate any retail establishment.
The CVS on Park permanently closed in late May. The company wouldn’t tell us the exact reason it closed, just that factors include market dynamics, population shifts and the store’s performance.