In November, two boys, ages 15 and 16, snatched three liquor bottles off the shelves of the Kelso Safeway and burst out the doors. Earlier this month, also at the Kelso Safeway, a woman placed bottles of booze in her shopping cart and purse, then simply wheeled the cart out the door without paying.
Spirits theft has become a common crime at stores locally and statewide since voters decided in 2011 to shut down the state’s liquor stores and allow grocery stores to sell hard alcohol. Shoplifters are taking advantage of the grocery stores’ relatively lax security and making off with bottles of whiskey, vodka, tequila and other spirits.
Last year, there were 41 booze thefts in Longview from June through December alone, according to statistics provided by the Longview police department. There probably were more that were not reported, said Longview police Sgt. John Reeves.
Some of the incidents have been violent. In August, a woman struck an employee at the Ocean Beach Highway Walmart while trying to steal a bottle of liquor. And in October, a pair of men assaulted an employee while stealing booze from the Ocean Beach Highway Safeway, according to Longview police.
Locally, the Safeway at 1227 15th Avenue in Longview was by far the hardest-hit by booze thieves last year, with 21 reports of theft. Late last year, during a late-night stop at the 15th Avenue Safeway, a reporter witnessed employees chase several people who grabbed bottles of hard alcohol and rushed out the back of the store.
Other Longview stores fared much better in fending off alcohol thefts. The Seventh Avenue and Ocean Beach Highway Walmarts each reported six alcohol thefts last year. The Ocean Beach Highway Safeway had five, and Fred Meyer had only one, according to Longview Police.
The local thefts are a symptom of a statewide problem that has prompted the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to petition the state Liquor Control Board to require retailers to report spirits thefts.
In its petition, the association said about 1,500 liquor sales outlets have opened up since liquor sales were privatized June 1. That’s nearly five times the number of stores — 329 — that sold spirits before Initiative 1183 took effect and abolished the state sales system.
“Many, if not most, of these business were not planned and constructed to properly secure high-theft items such as spirits. As a result, we believe significant amounts of spirts are being diverted from legitimate sales and unlawfully making their way into the community,” the association’s petition said.
Besides reducing tax revenues, rising liquor theft has increased underage alcohol use and encouraged “an increasing black market focused on theft and resale of spirits,” the association asserts.
Tracking thefts would help determine the real scope of the problem and take steps to curb it, if necessary. A public comment period on rules to require reporting spirits theft ends Sunday.
This is the first year Longview police have tracked liquor thefts, Sgt. Reeves said. Before privatization, police dealt primarily with thefts of beer and wine from gas stations and convenience stores, Reeves said. He said he can’t recall “ever going to a state liquor store” for a report of an alcohol theft.
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Kelso police don’t track the number of booze thefts, said Kelso Police Capt. Darr Kirk. Anecdotally, he said, they’re on the rise in that city as well.
Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson, who opposed the effort to privatize hard alcohol, predicted before the 2011 election that thefts would increase if voters approved the sale of booze in grocery stores. “I hate to say what I was afraid would happen is happening,” he said Friday.
Nelson said he’d hoped that grocery stores would at least be kept in more-secure, segregated areas, where minors wouldn’t be allowed to get near it and thieves would have a harder time snatching it off the shelves. In many cases, he said, that didn’t happen.
Now, Nelson said he worries that what will follow is an increase in drunk driving arrests and underage drinking. Those statistics are not yet available, he said, so it remains to be seen if those predictions will bear out.
Nelson said the spike in liquor thefts is disconcerting because people who steal booze aren’t likely to be responsible drinkers. They’re more likely to drink too much, drive drunk or “give it or sell it to kids in the parking lot,” he said.
Local grocery stores are employing vastly different security regimes — some more rigorous than others — to protect their hard alcohol. At the 15th Avenue Safeway, where thefts are most common, vodka and whiskey bottles line shelves near the beer and wine, not far from the deli. Each bottle is capped with a plastic anti-theft device, similar to the tags retailers put on clothing that get removed at the cash register.
Fred Meyer keeps its hard alcohol between the peanut butter and cheese aisles and uses similar anti-theft devices. Both Walmart and Winco Foods have employed more strict security measures, placing booze in the front of the store by the cash registers.
Winco had no reported alcohol thefts last year, perhaps because its booze section is roped off and situated right next to the customer service counter. Customers must pay before a bottle leaves the spirits sales area. confirmed
None of those companies responded to requests for comment last week.
Safeway spokeswoman Sara Osborne, however, said Longview’s 15th Avenue store has “a higher than average number of petty theft incidents for all items” — not just liquor.
Since June, Safeway has helped bust six organized theft rings that were stealing a “significant” amount of booze from its Southwest Washington stores, she said. None of them, she said, were targeting Longview stores and the problems at the 15th Avenue Safeway don’t appear to be the result of an organized ring.
Osborne said the company’s stores “continue to refine ... our tactics” to prevent alcohol thefts. She declined to disclose those tactics, saying, “This is a highly sensitive security issue.”