Pumping Gas

Increasingly organized retail theft and more sophisticated ways of shoplifting have led to stepped-up efforts by the Mentor Police Department to deter the would-be thieves.

Mentor Patrolman James Collier said thieves are using various items such as boosters bags, cloned credit cards and even duct tape to steal merchandise and operate in groups of two to three or even more.

“It is suspected that many of these may be professional theft rings,” Lake County Narcotics Agency Director Dave Frisone said.

Many of these thefts are carried out so the suspects can return the stolen merchandise to the stores and obtain a gift card, which they can then take to a card-exchange kiosk or a cash-for-gold store and exchange for cash at about 50 percent to 60 percent of face value, said Lt. Dave House of the Euclid Police Department. The cash is then probably used to purchase heroin, he said.

“Retail stores don’t demand receipts for returns, making them easy victims, but they could scare away customers who have legitimately lost their receipts,” House said. “It puts the retail stores in a tight spot — stop the thefts or lose legitimate customers.”

Frisone said the availability of heroin is what makes it so prevalent and allows people easy access to it.

“If we can limit the availability, we can help the problem,” he said.

And preventing the thefts, or the exchange of gift cards for cash, is a way of making the heroin less available.

Mentor police are ramping up their efforts because of the Retail Crime Deterrence Grant funded by the Office of Criminal Justice Service for almost $25,000, with $6, 247 of that coming from a match by the city of Mentor.

The narcotics unit helped Mentor craft the grant when the connection was made between thefts and drug use.

With the funding available, Mentor is able to provide additional hours for crime prevention measures and for undercover surveillance details.

Some of the prevention measures have included five meetings held for targeted stores along with developing a storewide network/email to distribute arrest/suspect information. There were 66 bulletins distributed through email to the targeted stores, Collier said. In addition, crime prevention officers are able to conduct training for the targeted stores, which is improving communications between the stores and police department.

“An effort to build effective communication and partnership with the police department is important to address this growing problem,” Mentor Police Chief Kevin Knight said.

Mentor police have taken to social media, posting surveillance videos of suspects from inside the stores or posting bulletins of the offenders on Facebook after they have been charged.

The department also is using the grant money to conduct undercover surveillance details in retail store parking lots to identify and arrest retail crime suspects, Collier said.

“Mentor’s objective with their grant is to prevent and deter the thefts while Lake County Narcotics piggybacks off that and is able to take advantage if a suspect in a theft charge is able to assist Narcotics in their investigations,” Frisone said.

“Lake County Narcotics units works with all local law enforcement agencies, especially with Mentor, so they are able to share intelligence on suspects they are encountering because we know many of these folks are committing the thefts to fuel their drug habits,” Frisone said. “We work closely with plainclothes and uniformed officers.”

He added that a lot of information gathered from Mentor arrests is passed on to Lake County Narcotics in efforts to find the buyers and the ones importing the drugs into the county.

Lake County Narcotics also is using a grant from the Office of Criminal Justice Services to fund its investigations and provide further training.

The stepped-up efforts by police are starting to show somewhat remarkable results. There were 67 arrests totaling in 149 charges at the end of the year by the undercover detail. Of the 67 arrests, 41 were drug addicts, Collier said. Mentor Police Department is in its second year of receiving the Retail Crime Deterrent Grant.

Mentor’s results, with the added efforts they are able to put forth from receipt of the grant money, has led the Offices of Criminal Justice Services to suggest other police departments speak with Mentor to learn from them to reduce the crime in their communities.

Mentor Municipal Court is trying to reduce the number of thefts by imposing mandatory six-month sentences on second-time offenders. Collier said the hope is that within that period of time, they can be cleaned up from their addiction and educated.

It’s time to “be proactive, not reactive,” Knight said.

“As long as the grant is funded with Mentor this will continue to get better, either it will deter the thefts, or we will get better at targeting,” Frisone said.