PPIC policy director and senior fellow Magnus Lofstrom testified at the inaugural hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on Retail Theft on December 19, 2023. Here are his prepared remarks.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify this afternoon. My name is Magnus Lofstrom, policy director of criminal justice and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). PPIC is an independent and nonpartisan policy research organization and does not take positions on legislation. My comments draw on PPIC’s extensive research on crime trends in California, including those on retail theft and robberies.
The California Department of Justice (CADOJ) provides crime data that can inform our policy discussions on the challenges retailers face. Recent trends in retail theft and robbery vary across the state and by type of offense—but the data indicate a rise in shoplifting, especially in the Bay Area, and a broader rise in commercial burglary among urban counties. These patterns plausibly contribute to differences in how retailers and residents perceive the problem of retail theft and robberies.
To better understand these challenges, it is important not to limit analyses to shoplifting, a subcategory of larceny. This is especially true for California, where the penal code limits shoplifting to theft below $950 (a misdemeanor). Higher value retail theft is captured as commercial burglary and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
Robberies—thefts in which force is threatened and/or used—are more serious offenses. Those targeting commercial establishments—such as department, grocery, and convenience stores—are a subcategory of robberies.
As with any data, there are important limitations. First, the data currently available for the entire state do not extend beyond December 2022. Second, the data are limited to incidents reported to law enforcement agencies. Retail theft is likely underreported, especially low-value theft. Furthermore, agencies may vary in how they report and categorize an offense. Lastly, the data do not allow specific identification of so-called smash-and-grab incidents, or retail theft that is organized.
Beginning with a statewide overview of the last decade or so, shoplifting remains 8% below pre-pandemic levels, despite a 29% jump in 2022 from 2019. However, both commercial burglary and robbery have been ticking up: by 16% and 13% in 2022, compared to 2019.
Recent trends in retail theft and commercial robbery varied widely across the state. For shoplifting, the Bay Area had the highest reported rates—and the biggest recent jumps. Of the 15 most populous counties, San Mateo had the highest rate in 2022, followed by San Francisco. Rates in these counties increased 53% and 24% compared to 2019. However, in 5 of the largest counties, rates fell at least 20% between 2019 and 2022. Furthermore, reported shoplifting did not increase in the state’s smaller counties.
Commercial burglary, however, increased across the state; in 2020, it became more commonly reported than shoplifting. Commercial burglary rose in all five of the Bay Area’s counties that are among the state’s largest—varying from 9% higher in San Mateo to 65% higher in Alameda. Commercial burglaries also jumped in Coastal Southern California, rising 29% in Los Angeles and 54% in Orange County. As with shoplifting, commercial burglary fell in smaller and rural counties.
Robberies of commercial establishments were up in 9 of the 15 largest counties in 2022 compared to 2019. After rising 13% between 2019 and 2022, the state’s largest county, Los Angeles, had the highest commercial robbery rate in 2022. The biggest increases among large counties, however, were a 51% jump in Fresno and a 29% rise in Sacramento. Commercial robberies also appear to be on the uptick in smaller counties.
Examining monthly crime numbers can provide some insights on what 2023 may look like. Here I focus on Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties, as they have received media attention for rising retail theft and robberies.
The monthly crime numbers show that San Francisco’s increase in shoplifting is driven by a jump from mid-2021 to mid-2022. By the second half of 2022, it returned to its pre-pandemic level. Shoplifting in Los Angeles, however, has climbed steadily since mid-2021. By late 2022, it was 10%–15% above pre-pandemic levels. Other large urban counties—such as Sacramento, San Mateo, and Riverside—also show upward trends in shoplifting.
Commercial burglaries and robberies in both Los Angeles and San Francisco stayed relatively flat through 2022, above their pre-pandemic levels.
Are these trends unique to California? The available data is limited, with crime data provided by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) restricted to shoplifting for 24 large select cities around the country.
As in California, changes vary widely across cities, ranging from an increase of 64% in New York City between the first half of 2019 and first half of 2023, to a decrease of 78% in St. Petersburg, Florida. Overall, for all 24 cities, reported shoplifting is up by 16%. But if New York City is excluded, shoplifting is down by 7%—in line with California’s numbers.
Overall, crime data indicate that retailers have increasingly been the target of crime in parts of California. Reported shoplifting incidents rose in the Bay Area, and shoplifting is trending up in Los Angeles and other urban areas. Commercial burglary and robbery increases in recent years are more widespread. By 2022, commercial burglary was up in 21 of California’s 58 counties—mostly large urban counties—and commercial robberies rose in 25 counties. Together, these more serious crimes are impacting the counties where the majority of Californians live.