This holiday season, City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office would like to remind you not to buy your gifts out of the trunks of cars or through sketchy-seeming eBay sellers. At a packed press conference at City Hall this morning, Mayor Mike Rawlings, Dallas Police Chief David Brown, First Assistant District Attorney Heath Harris and half a dozen city council members joined with representatives from a slew of major retail chains to announce their new partnership to target organized retail theft.
"It's not an approach," Rawlings told the audience. "It's an attack. We're going on the offensive today." And that attack, as Brown made clear, could focus on not just the people selling stolen goods, but people buying them.
The conference came a couple months after the DA's office announced that 17 people were indicted in a retail theft ring that boosted some $400,000 worth of goods. But it appears that was just the tip of the people-stealing-stuff iceberg: Rawlings said that Dallas County lost an estimated $20 million in sales tax revenue last year as a result of retail theft. He added that there's a "powerful and extensive" list of retailers and city officials behind the new project. The major chains who had reps standing beside the mayor at the conference included Target, Walmart, Tom Thumb, Fiesta, Kroger, Neiman Marcus and Toys "R" Us.
"Some people think it's just a little shoplifting," Rawlings said, rather sternly. "That's not the case. It's serious." During the holidays, he said, "we want the goods going out the front of the door, not the back."
Chief Brown said that property crime accounts for 88 percent of total crime in Dallas. While violent crime is down 9 percent this year, he said, property crime is only down 3 percent. "That's not good enough," he said.
And just who's stealing all this stuff? Brown said the retail chains are being targeted by "aggressive organized criminal enterprises," He said the department has evidence that crime bosses make lists of hot items -- "like a vacuum cleaner, for example" -- that they ask their thieves to steal from stores and distribute to be resold. "It's an enterprise, a collaborative business process," he said. "But it's illegal." He promised these thieves and bosses will, when caught, be met with "more severe sentences and higher charges."
But Brown said another major issue with retail theft is the black market where people will buy the stolen goods. He said there really are thieves selling stuff "from the trunks of cars for 20, 30, or 40 percent under market value."
Harris wanted to make the implications of that clear: "If you are buying, selling, or stealing retail products," he said, "We're gonna prosecute you ... and we're going to do our best to make sure you go away for a long, long time." He said the DA's office is "fed up" with this type of theft.
"If it sounds too good to be true," Chief Brown said, "it's stolen." He said that undercover officers will also be working on the project, and that some items may be "tracked using technology." He added that someone buying a stolen item could potentially "be caught up in a criminal investigation," and urged citizens to call 911 if they suspected stolen property was being sold.
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During the Q&A period, South Dallas activist Willie Mae Coleman raised her hand and named half a dozen specific South Dallas streets where she said stolen property is being openly sold.
"They've been doing this for years," she told Brown. "I know the law officers have seen them. Everybody's seen them. ... But it just gets worse." Brown reassured her that the new approach would prevent a "revolving door" of briefly jailing thieves by instead targeting the "root cause" of retail theft, the organized gangs.
Rawlings said the council will be briefed on the initiative Wednesday. But the bottom line, he said, "Is that there are bad guys out there stealing things from retail businesses, selling them to crime bosses, or someplace out there in the street, or online... People who buy those things are helping criminals."
"We say no mas," the mayor told the audience. "Dallas needs to be the safest city in America, and the safest place to do business."