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Sunday Focus: Statistics show increase of shoplifting reports

(Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

(Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Reported instances of shoplifting in Natchez stores nearly doubled from 2012 to 2014, but law enforcement officials don’t necessarily think that means the crime is occurring more often.

Instead, Natchez Police Chief Danny White said, stores are doing a better job catching the thieves.

Reports of shoplifting were steady for years — 210 reports in 2000, and 232 in 2012 — until 2013, when there were 408 reports of shoplifting, according to Natchez Police Department Capt. Tom McGehee. This past year, as of Dec. 15, NPD had received 456 shoplifting reports.

From the 456 reports in 2014, 338 arrests were made. Of those arrested, 314 were first-time offenders.

Even though most shoplifters are amateurs, White said there are also “professional” shoplifters who look for items they can resell and sometimes work in pairs — one person distracts, while the other shoplifts.

Nineteen repeat offenders appeared in court for second or third offenses this year. Five shoplifters stole something worth more than $1,000.

White said he thinks stores now know it is critical that they spend more time looking for shoplifters. The Natchez Walmart, for example, used to have only one security officer on duty, but now usually has two or three, White said.

The Natchez Walmart manager would not comment, but Aaron Mullins, a Walmart corporate spokesperson, said Walmart constantly evaluates security measures on a store-by-store basis.

Measures that some stores take to deter shoplifting and other crimes include security cameras, enhanced lighting and increased security personnel. Stores also strive for strong relationships with local police, Mullins said.

“We’re obviously very committed to providing customers with a safe and secure shopping environment,” Mullins said.

White said shoplifting is a problem because it is a crime some people think they can get away with, but they end up with an arrest record that hurts their chances of getting a job, for example.

Shoplifting also costs local businesses.

Department stores Walmart, Belk and Kmart are hotspots in the area for shoplifting, White said.

Natchez Kmart loss prevention manager LaWanda Alexander said shoplifting was much worse 10 years ago, when she first began working in her position. It eased up, but worsened again in 2011 and 2012. Alexander suspects the increase was because of the economic downturn.

Since then, Kmart has stepped up efforts to prevent shoplifting. Small items such as cosmetics are stolen most frequently, Alexander said, so employees have to patrol the store.

“Myself and my team, we’ve made ourselves known and once the word gets out, it’s like ‘Nah, we don’t really want to go to Kmart,’“ she said. “We work really hard to protect that image here.”

Wendy Jones, manager of the Dollar General on U.S. 61 North, has occasionally taken matters into her own hands.

“Everybody’s getting the drift that I don’t want you in here stealing,” Jones said. “I ran a few (shoplifters) off, and it was probably the same people coming in here continuously. Now that I’ve ran them out, I don’t think it’s as high as it was in this store.”

Jones’ approach is to keep the store as neat as possible so employees can easily spot missing items. Good customer service is also critical, she said, because it can be difficult to catch people shoplifting small items on video surveillance.

“You have to actually see the person concealing the items,” Jones said.

Jamie Tyler, manager of the Shoe Department in the Natchez Mall, agreed that a strong presence of employees is helpful. All of her employees are on the sales floor at all times unless they go to the back to retrieve a pair of shoes.

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