Debunking the myth of a shoplifting crisis


Target recently announced that it was closing nine store locations because of “organized retail crime.” The term, which is often used interchangeably with “organized retail theft,” is being used more and more to describe viral videos of what’s often seen as “brazen” theft taking place in retail stores like Walgreens, CVS and Target. But what does it mean exactly? And does it actually describe a real trend or is it a myth propagated by corporations and the media?

As a research fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center, I have analyzed the organized retail theft narratives for years and worked with community-based groups to disrupt it by challenging how these news stories are leveraged for political purposes. Generally, organized retail crime refers to professional shoplifting, cargo theft, retail crime rings and other organized crime. But the lack of a clear legal definition leaves significant room for interpretation at the state and local level.


At least nine states have passed legislation based on substantially different definitions. In Delaware, organized retail crime is taking “quantities that would not normally be purchased for personal use or consumption.” Meanwhile, in Alabama, the term can be applied to someone who “receives, retains or disposes of retail merchandise,” having “reasonable grounds” to believe it was stolen. Yet, research shows that none of these laws are likely to reduce crime and could disproportionately impact marginalized groups. For example, when looking at historical arrest records, it is estimated that Black people were arrested and charged with organized retail theft more than twice as often as their white peers.

Articles warning of organized retail theft first began to appear around October 2020. Stories by publications like San Francisco Chronicle and later SFGate cited rampant organized retail crime as the cause of Walgreens store closures in California.

Government data doesn’t show that retail theft is actually increasing. According to The Marshall Project, around 40% of law enforcement agencies (over 6,000) did not report their most recent crime data to the FBI at the time these stories started circulating. Also, police departments often do not distinguish retail theft from other kinds of robberies and larceny. And in the instance of the recent Target closures, data journalists have shown that where there is data available, in three of the locations slated for closure (in East Harlem, San Francisco, and Seattle), there were fewer reported incidents of shoplifting in and around those stores than other stores that are not slated for closure.

And in January 2023, Walgreens’ Chief Financial Officer, James Kehoe, told shareholders that concerns about organized retail theft were overstated, admitting the company had over invested in private security companies and mechanisms.

Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities. Local businesses are the lifeline to communities and should be able to thrive. That’s why we need more transparency, public data and legislative solutions, such as The Combating Organized Retail Crime Act, backed by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and its House companion bill.

We also need more responsible reporting practices. The fight to contain information chaos must include preventing the breakdown of context, which strips away a community’s humanity and history, and in turn, justifies continued injustices.

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