Shoplifting Part II : Police respond to skyrocketing shoplifting problem
Shoplifting, and in some cases shoplifting with assault, has gained a local spotlight with retailers reporting an uptick heading into the Christmas holiday shopping season, and some shop owners allowing workers to carry concealed weapons to protect themselves.
There were 68 shoplifting incidents reported for the months of October and November in Hobbs, according to Hobbs Police Department statistics. Statistics for prior years were not immediately available.
Between the months of January and December, the District Attorney’s office filed 31 shoplifting cases were filed in Hobbs. Of those 31 cases, eight were dismissed for various reasons.
The city of Hobbs Municipal Court has had 98 shoplifting cases filed from Jan. 1 to Dec. 8, and six of those were dismissed either by the city attorney, or the municipal court judge.
Store owners who are complaining about the lack of prosecution see who they allege are the same criminals coming into their stores several times a week. Those criminals are released back on the streets — and back into stores committing the same crimes — almost immediately, they said.
“I had a guy come into my store trying to steal from us,” owner of Rig Outfitters and Home store and Scrub Outfitters, Joe Imbriale said. “This is a guy we’ve had run-ins with before. He was in my store sitting in my furniture department just staring at my female employees. I asked him to leave and he came back two more times. The third time I had him trespassed. When he was in here this last time, he assaulted one of my employees. We pressed charges for assault. The police came in and said, ‘What’s going on Jeffrey?’
“They knew who this guy was and had run-ins with him before. They handcuffed him, put him in the back of the police car and he said, ‘You know you’re not taking me to jail.’ Sure enough, they took him home and the next morning I see him walking down the street.”
Hobbs Police Chief John Ortolano said store owners should place the blame on the Legislature for thieves being released back onto the streets to commit the same crimes again.
“The heat needs to be put on the state legislative bodies to determine what we can do differently,” Ortolano said. “I will say this, in southeast New Mexico, the state-elected officials are extremely supportive of rectifying those situations.”
Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton agrees the blame for criminals not being held accountable for their actions cannot fall on a single agency.
“We see it every day. These criminals are out within an hour. That’s because of the reform that the state Legislature had passed into law several laws ago,” Helton said. “We have to point a lot of fingers at the reform and the DA doesn’t intentionally drop cases. They drop them for certain reasons. Just to say the DA is dropping cases is not entirely truthful.
“There is enough blame to go around, whether it’s the legislators, what’s going on around the country. We can point the blame at a lot of things, but what it boils down to is I just want people to know the Sheriff’s office is going to enforce the law one way or another. I will say this, I am still the chief law enforcement officer of this county no matter what the legislature enacts, no matter what we see going on across the country. The Lea County Sheriff’s Office is still going to enforce the law, we’re not going to be in fear of litigation to prevent us from doing our job. We are going to do our job despite what any legislature enacts, despite what anybody in Washington, D.C. does, the Lea County Sheriff’s Office is still going to enforce the law. We support citizens of this county.”
Imbriale said while the blame can go around, all he wants is someone to step up and hold shoplifters accountable.
“To be honest, I don’t care who is to blame. From the Hobbs PD to the DA, they’re throwing one another under the bus and it’s pretty confusing for me because I’m hearing it from the Hobbs PD that the DA is not doing her job, the DA is saying they’re (HPD) not filing their reports, but somebody needs to do something about this. It’s frustrating as a business owner,” Imbriale said. “I went to the DA there and she wouldn’t give me the time of day and now since I made a post, she suddenly wants to contact me? I’ve gone to several police officers and asked them what I could do as a business owner to help them? I’ve offered that several times to Hobbs PD. They’ve never come back and told me what I can do.”
But law enforcement officials across Lea County see the rise in shoplifting varying by location. Lovington Police Chief David Miranda said for the city of Loving-ton, there has only been one or two shoplifting related incidents a week but Helton said he has seen an increase in shoplifting in Lea County.
“I have not seen an increase in shoplifting in Lovington lately,” Miranda said. “I would say we have maybe one a week at $100 or less. But you guys (Hobbs) have more big box stores. You have Home Depot, Walmart.”
“NOT ONLY ARE WE seeing an increase in this in Lea County, but we are seeing an increase in this across the country,” Helton said.
According to Ortolano, the public can help combat shoplifting by having functioning cameras, and someone available who can assist police with the necessary evidence.
“Part of this is education. It seems like everything on the planet nowadays someone has a cell phone video of it,” Ortolano said. “But when we respond to a call like this, there’s very few witnesses, very little information. I urge the general public to help. Be a good witness. Volunteer to be a witness. The same thing holds true for these businesses. Take notes of the people who are doing this so they can provide us with a description.
“That will assist us and aid in prosecution for these cases because there is a number of times where criminal acts go un-prosecuted because we don’t have any cooperating witnesses or victims. There have been cases just recently where somebody has been shot or stabbed and they don’t want to aid in prosecution.”
Additionally, Ortolano says instead of callers saying they don’t want to prosecute thieves and just get their “stuff” back, they should hold the thieves accountable, and prosecute. That in turn will help put a stop to the retail theft problem.
“Several months ago we were receiving a number of calls where right in the call, the caller says, ‘Oh we don’t want prosecution, we just want our stuff back.’ I ordered a lieutenant to inform the business that isn’t helping the retail theft problem,” Ortolano said. “Eventually, this went up to the corporate level and the corporate level said they wanted to aid in the prosecution of these criminals.”
Ortolano said while various people in the community are alleging the dismissal of cases is due to HPD officers not showing up to court, there has only been one instance where an officer has not shown — and that officer was punished.
“Since I’ve been the chief there have been several cases where people say, ‘These cases are getting dismissed because officers are missing court.’ We dug down as to why the case was missed,” Ortolano said. “An overwhelming majority was due to subpoenas never being served to the officer or they were served with next to no notice.
“I can say that that narrative was false to imply the officers were blowing off court. To my knowledge, only one person has ever missed court and they are getting disciplined if they have been given proper notice. Anybody that is saying these officers are blowing off court, or it’s not a high priority for the PD, that is false. That is one of my pet peeves because victims need officers to show up for court.”
Helton and Miranda gave similar responses as far as officers or deputies being held accountable for missing court.
“We deal with it,” Helton said about deputies missing court. “There’s times we get some of those issues and if there is no attempt to get a continuance, and the deputy just flat out didn’t show up for court they are disciplined. I am the officer of the court and not only do I provide the civil service of the county, but we still enforce the law on the patrol division.
“We’ve had a few over the last few years who have missed court for this reason or another, and they were disciplined. … Over the last three years, less than what I can count on one hand probably missed court and were disciplined.”
“As a detective, years before I was a chief, that was one of my pet peeves,” Miranda said about officers missing court. “Whether it’s a case the DA is prosecuting or misdemeanor cases, officers not showing up to court for their own officer prosecution cases is inexcusable and they deserve to be punished.”
To combat the continued shoplifting problem, Ortolano said HPD is working in conjunction with the Hobbs City Attorney’s Office to dedicate personnel and resources to ensure all reported shoplifting crimes are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted.
While the police say they are doing their part in the investigation and prosecution of shoplifters, Imbriale stands by his plans to keep his employees protected by allowing them to carry concealed weapons — if they have a legally valid conceal carry license.
Imbriale says he is merely doing what he must to protect his employees, though it may not be what law enforcement would recommend, according to Ortolano, Helton and Miranda.
“In my personal opinion, these are property crimes, these are not where people are coming into these businesses and brandishing a weapon and forcibly taking items from a store,” Ortolano said. “If somebody comes into a store, takes an item and runs out not using any form of violence or any force, and we have an employee who brandishes a firearm, or uses a firearm to stop this, these types of situations can quickly escalate to an area where they don’t belong. Whenever there is a gun available by someone at a situation, the chance of violence does increase.”
“We have a second amendment right. You still have to justify your actions. It is a dangerous statement to take. I understand his position, his anger, his frustration. But at the end of the day, you have to justify your actions,” Helton said. “Does being armed on a theft rise to the level of deadly force? You don’t encounter a situation of deadly force when the other party isn’t armed.
“In order to justify the use of a firearm, you better be able to articulate your life is in danger. It’s like taking a gun to a fistfight. Under the second amendment, you have a right to defend yourself, your property and your family, but that’s only when you’re facing a deadly force encounter.”
“Ninety-nine times out of a 100 it is not okay to shoot a shoplifter,” Miranda said.
Gabrielle Arsiaga may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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