Broadway grocers cheesed over chronic shoplifting

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When many people think of store thefts, they think of men in balaclavas hitting jewelry stores for their merchandise. But instead of strands of pearls, in Kingsbridge, the high-dollar quarry is fancy cheese and deli meats.

Chronic theft of small items can add up to be incredibly harmful to grocery stores along Broadway, according to Katherine Broihier, director of the Kingsbridge Business Improvement District. She’s listened to complaints of store owners and managers who say shoplifters are cutting deeply into their profits.

“When someone goes into Stop & Shop and steals four cases of Ensure and comes back a couple days later for a repeat, it might not be a horror, but it starts turning into a real drain,” Broihier said. “Of course prices are only going to keep going up as shrinkage rises.”

And it appears it’s the same cast of light-handed characters who commit the crimes again and again, according to Broihier. Store owners can ban people from their premises, but it doesn’t mean a repeat offender can’t slip in the front door and out again with ill-gotten foodstuffs in their pockets.

Officers with the 50th Precinct are quick to respond and arrest a perpetrator on charges of shoplifting, but Broihier said many store owners tell her they see the person walking free a few days later, only to repeat the crime once again.

“And when they do it again,” she asks, “what is a retailer to do?”

At Garden Gourmet at 5665 Broadway, thieves take packaged meats, tuna, fancy cooking oil, soap and anything else that’s expensive, small and easy to resell elsewhere, owner Andy Zoitas said.
“An example is, we get in a whole case of Tide,” Zoitas said. “We put it on the shelf today, and then the next day it’s not there. And we check the computer and it doesn’t show that it was sold. It was stolen.”

The store has cameras and security guards, but thieves are more clever than many might give them credit for.

“They outsmart my security guards,” Zoitas said. “They watch, they come in at the time the security guards are on break or in the bathroom. They just run in and they take stuff, and then they run out of the store.”

A few missing items each day can add up to a big loss at the end of the month for business owners. That’s something the 50th Precinct takes seriously, neighborhood coordination officer Sgt. Mark Giordano said.

Officers respond to shoplifting calls regularly, making arrests and charging suspects. A number of repeat offenders are substance abusers and steal to support an addiction, the sergeant said, which makes deterrence a challenge.

“We’re just one piece of the puzzle,” Giordano said. “The police and district attorney’s office have been trying really hard to keep these people in, or at least get them help or do whatever we can to prevent this from happening.”

The Bronx District Attorney’s office is the next step. Prosecutors ask judges for appropriate bail amounts and conditions. If defendants have substance abuse problems, they’ll offer treatment programs that may result in a milder sentence if they’re completed successfully.

The DA works to find the right balance of keeping the borough safe and providing defendants help, Giordano said.

“There are repeat offenders that have been held up to six months at a time,” he said. “If they have an addiction problem or some other issue they need help with when they’re incarcerated, the city then tries to get them into a program. That gets them off the street for longer and helps to try to rehabilitate them.”

Prosecutors often ask for higher bail when the defendant has a substance abuse problem, but judges ultimately have the final say. In one case, a judge released a repeat shoplifter without bail when the DA’s office requested at least $10,000, according to a DA office spokeswoman. Prosecutors offered the defendant immediate help through a treatment program that, if he completed it, would mean all charges would be dismissed. The man turned it down.
He was arrested on shoplifting changes again shortly after release.

In the mean time, Giordano said police will continue monitoring the thieves’ favorite targets. And when a shoplifter is caught, police have them sign barring notices.

“By them signing it, we’ve made it clear to them that they are no longer welcome in those stores, and that if they enter those stores, they’re going to be charged higher because they’ve been told they’re not welcome there,” Giordano said. “They’re not even supposed to step foot onto the premises and can be arrested for doing so.”

Zoitas just hopes there is a change soon for the sake of his store’s bottom line.

“It is very frustrating, but what can we do?” he said. “We call the police and we file a complaint and they arrest them. But then you see them out a month later and they’re doing the same thing again.

“What can we do?”