Organized retail crime explosion prompts city, suburbs to coordinate responses in crack down of thefts


Organized retail theft, smash and grab, takeovers — this type of crime has been around for years, but it’s reached unprecedented levels.

According to data publicly available on the Philadelphia District Attorney’s website, there were 13,595 reported thefts in 2022, 16,362 in 2023 and, so far in 2024, more than 18,000.

Philadelphia Police announced a bust earlier in June. They say they arrested Janiyah Robinson, 19, for recruiting people in the area of 17th Street and Susquehanna Avenue, including juveniles without records, to commit the grab-and-go thefts, promising them money. She’s accused of recruiting one juvenile as young as 9-years-old.

Janiyah along with Ayonna Robinson, 24, were arrested for at least 20 high-end retail thefts, police say, totaling more than $75,000.

Law enforcement doesn’t call this type of theft shoplifting. It’s "organized retail crime."

"This is not randomly going into a store and stealing something, say, because you’re hungry or you’re trying to bring something home to your family to feed them that day. This is targeted," says Kimberly Esack, Assistant DA and Supervisor of the Organized Retail and House Theft Task Force with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. "They pick the places where to go, they know what merchandise they want to get in advance, they even know what they are going to get for it on the open market."

Esack says those responsible for fencing the stolen goods create LLC names and pop up online quickly to start selling online merchandise and can make millions of dollars.

"They can take in more money than one of your big box stores like Target or Walmart in a three-month period. They outpace them in the amount of revenue that they’re taking" says Esack. "In three months, they are outpacing stores that have been around for years, so that tells you, this is something different than we’ve ever seen before."


The crimes are hitting big box stores hard, like Home Depot.

"The last four to five years, the increase that we’ve seen is unprecedented," says Sean Browne, Senior Manager of Asset Protection.

However, small businesses are not exempt from the issue.

Vincent Emmanuel, spokesperson for the Delaware Valley Franchise Owners Association, says he’s fed up with what is happening in the city.

"It’s really ridiculous, I’ve been in business since 1981, but the problem is, we are seeing a scenario like it never happened before. ‘Why can’t I have it? I will just take it, what are you going to do about it?’" he says. "It’s a free-for-all, take whatever you want, sell whatever you want, and it’s a disgrace. A small business person like me, that’s the kind of stuff I’ve got to deal with on a daily basis and all I’m doing is getting up and going to work every day, like anybody else, raising my kids, paying my taxes. That’s all I’m doing."

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s website, it is estimated that the average American family will pay more than $500 annually in additional costs due to the impact of organized retail crime.

In 2021 alone, Pennsylvania suffered $5.5 billion worth of retail loss due to ORC. About 10 percent of offenders caused 60 percent of the retail loss, according to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. They say eight in 10 retail crimes have violence associated with them.


On December 3, 2023, while working as a loss prevention officer at the Macy’s store on Market Street, police say 27-year-old Eric Harrison was stabbed to death by Tyrone Tunnell.


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Tunnell was kicked out of the Macy’s store about 15 minutes earlier for attempting to steal hats, police say. Harrison’s colleague was also stabbed, but survived.

"He was just excited about life," says Eric Coates, Harrison’s father.

"We truly lost our best friend," says Dawn Fobbs, Harrison’s mother. "I just spoke to him that Thursday, he was talking to me and my husband, he was debating on leaving Macy’s and he was like, ‘There’s just a few more things I want to do before I leave,’ and I’m like, ‘Go on and leave, you’re at the Post Office now you’re happy.’ He was like, ‘Mom I got to get my apartment, just a few more steps,’ and it was just that Thursday. Then that Monday he was gone."

Fobbs also works in retail in the city.

"In a sense it’s like our son was a sacrificial lamb. And now y'all want to start changing everything?" she says. "Everyone else knew that it was out of control, and it's like it's a day late and a dollar short for us."


At the time of Harrison’s death, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s policy for prosecuting retail theft came under fire.

He says his policy — which was that people who did not have a serious record and had stolen less than $500 would be prosecuted for a summary offense — was wrongly interpreted by many as not prosecuting retail crime at all.

"You’re changing the policy. It’s not public yet. Why?" asked FOX 29’s Kelly Rule.

"Because we can do better and we need to do better. You know the essence of what progressive prosecution is about is to try to be really accurate and really careful in ways that can enhance public safety," says DA Krasner.

The DA has not released his new policy for prosecuting retail theft, but he’s still taking an "individual justice" approach.

"The approach at this point is look carefully at the individual and figure out whether public safety is enhanced by treatment, rehabilitation, other forms of accountability than a conviction, or is public safety enhanced by a conviction and a state sentence?" he says.

"And you’d argue both are applicable?" asked Rule.

"Both are applicable," he says.

Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack says when she was brought into the DA’s office, back in 2019, she quickly found a vicious cycle of failure to report in the city where retailers thought police wouldn’t show up, and police thought the DA’s office would not prosecute.

She teamed up with PPD Central Detectives to launch a pilot program in Center City to target prolific offenders. With support from City Council for funding, they expanded city-wide in February of this year and officially launched the Retail and House Theft Task Force.

Esack says they are working alongside businesses and PPD’s internal task force, sharing information in real time to get the full picture.

"There's more information sharing about the offenders that we were not getting before and that we would not have known anything about, and that includes the retailers as well," she says. "We look back and see, was there anything else they were doing? We get an arrest warrant for those cases; an arrest warrant goes through. We pull all those cases together. If they have anything else in the system, we take those as well, and then they're prosecuted."

When Janiyah Robinson, 19, was arrested earlier this month for the Lululemon heists, among others, police made a point about her bail, set for $180,000.

"It sends a very strong message. And that's a message that we do want to send across the city, is that if you do retail theft, you're part of an organization, you're going to get a very, very stiff bail," said Inspector Ray Evers, in a press conference about the arrest. "$180,000 for nine retail thefts is pretty stiff."


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Four women have been arrested and charged after police say they stole more than $10,000 from a Lululemon in Ardmore Tuesday. Meanwhile, thefts at other Lululemon locations in the Philly area increase.

Rule asked Esack, "For a first time offender, how do you send a message that they can’t continue to do this?"

"It's tough, because what you need, really, is cooperation from the victims too, to explain to them when you have a first-time offender coming in, that the goal isn't always to just automatically put somebody in jail," she replied. "I think doing what we're doing now, and getting the message out there that this is what is happening, word is going to spread that we're serious. The police are serious. The business community is serious, and so are the residents, because everyone's just fed up at this point. You can only give so much."

The District Attorney’s Office says with the increase of businesses reporting crimes, retail theft numbers are also up, as they expected.


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Philadelphia police say two thieves tried to evade arrest after stealing from a popular clothing store in Center City last week.

Philadelphia Police provided FOX 29 with their retail theft arrest numbers: 1,400+ in 2022, 1,500+ in 2023, and so far in 2024, more than 1,100.

The data available on the District Attorney’s website for retail left charges show numbers in the low hundreds: 251 in 2022, 183 in 2023, and 370 so far in 2024. According to the online database, of the 300 plus charges so far this year, 195 have been dismissed or withdrawn.


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"I can't answer for every single case. I can tell you what we're doing with mine when we pull them in, is that, if it gets withdrawn, we're looking back to see why did that happen? What was the reason behind it? Was a police officer unavailable? Were we unprepared? Was a loss prevention officer not available? And if we can resurrect it, that is what we're doing," says Esack.

DA Krasner says sometimes withdrawing or dismissing charges is in the interest of public safety.

"On the other hand, dismissal and withdrawal because you can't get your witnesses in, or because a prosecutor dropped the ball and made a mistake — that’s not good," he says. "So, we have to look at this in a more holistic way. This ain't a sport. This is about justice, and public safety is served when you do individual, careful justice."


Retail theft and organized retail crime is also hitting communities surrounding the city — sometimes, the same offenders.

In Bensalem, police say they’ve seen an over 30 percent increase in retail theft. However, they believe their new task force, and the use of technology and social media, contributed to the 65 percent closure rate they are now seeing with these crimes.

"We’re seeing a lot of people come out and say, we got to put an end to this, and we're listening," says William McVey, Director of Public Safety for the Bensalem Township Police Department.

Police provided FOX 29 with video showing the use of their drone, part of a new pilot program, after receiving a call about a retail theft at the Boscov’s at the Neshaminy Mall.

Communicating with officers on the ground, the video shows responding officers pull up and make the arrest.

"That looks like the future of policing," says Rule.

"Yeah, I think you're going to see it more and more with policing. It has a lot of capabilities that we just physically can't do," says McVey.

It’s one piece of technology they are using in their new partnership to tackle retail theft — Bensalem Secure, joining forces with the Mayor’s Office and the Bensalem Economic Development Committee, to prevent, to police, to prosecute.

"It affects every single person. The prices are rising because people are stealing businesses blind. There's been some decriminalization of, retail theft, as you said, people look at it as a minor offense, which has made the problem worse because now criminals think there's no consequence or no penalty," says McVey. "It’s just become brazen. And with that, we're seeing more violence associated with retail theft."

McVey says partnering with retailers, big and small, and loss prevention officers was key, so they can learn about a theft in real time and also alert other stores. They have also worked with retailers directly to take a more active approach in reporting and being a good witness.

"We’re not asking people to put themselves in harm's way. Get a camera on them, try and get a license plate, get a good picture of them. And if you can't do any of that, still, just call 911."

Sean Browne, Senior Manager of Asset Protection for Home Depot, says they are doing advocacy work to try to curb some of the beliefs that it’s okay to steal from big box stores.

"Home Depot has put a lot of investments in place so on the technology side, you see some of those when you walk in our store, the environment of the Home Depot looks different today than it did five to 10 years ago," he says. "We started to lock product up. We’ve added safety measures across the store, whether it be towers outside of parking lots, we’re testing a lot of cameras and other different technology to ensure we have the proper measures in place to help combat this issue of organized retail crime."

Bensalem Police say the use of cameras are crucial.

What seems to be getting the most attention — their new social media campaign. If you are arrested for retail theft, police will publicize your name, your picture, and your city on their website.

"It’s not to embarrass or shame someone, which some people have said. It’s to educate everyone," says McVey. "All the other stores know who this guy is now. And then maybe it deters him from coming back to our township or others from coming to our township to commit the same crime."


Bensalem Police say about 25 percent of their arrests for retail theft are from Bensalem residents, while 40 percent come from Philadelphia.

There is more information sharing with neighboring departments, and McVey says they recently had a sit-down meeting with PPD Commissioner Kevin Bethel and Mayor of Philadelphia, Cherelle Parker.

McVey is hopeful about their task force partnering with District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office.

"It put the number up of retail thefts committed in the region because it was no deterrence, and we would hear that on the street. ‘You can't arrest me. It's only $200, you can't physically arrest me,’ where our officers would say, ‘No, you're not in Philadelphia. Here in Bucks County, it's a misdemeanor offense.’"

"They are doing a lot more this past year, and I suspect that's going to continue, and that'll help all the suburban towns become somewhat safer once that city's a little safer."


On Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, Crate and Press is one of the new businesses to join the corridor and thrive.

But it’s not the case for every storefront.

"One of our businesses had a lot of retail theft and they were coming in and grabbing food, taking the tip jar kind of thing and eventually that business shut down," says Jacqueline Williams, Director of Operations and Corridor Manager for the Lancaster Avenue 24th Century Business Association CDC.

"People have a perception that if there’s too much, I call it, thievery, if there’s too much thievery, then there’s other crime and when there’s other crime whether perceived or real, that’s going to stop people from moving back and forth between the two businesses."

"The last thing you want is a business to leave," says Rule.

"The very last thing," Williams says.

However, she’s optimistic about the task force and the discussion around cracking down on retail theft in the city.

"Finally, finally, and we’ve all said it’s been an issue," she says.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Patrick Shulte, with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, will oversee a team of prosecutors dedicated to retail theft in Pennsylvania. It’s the result of a new law that goes into effect in July, prioritizing ringleader and cases in which violence was used.

"What they're doing in Philadelphia is absolutely, 100 percent, a step in the right direction," says Shulte.

The new law allows the team to prosecute cases where groups cross county lines, and it cuts the retail value thresholds that correlate with second- and third-degree felonies in half.

"If the loss to any retailer is over, or in any case, is over $50,000, that becomes a felony of the first degree," says Shulte. "So, we're up in the neighborhood of murder and robbery and rape, when we're talking about that grading," he says. "And that is a significant increase in penalty, for these organizational heads, and we plan on using that with all the vigor we have here at the Attorney General's Office."


Six months since their sons’ death, Eric Harrison’s parents are closely watching the promises of change in the city.

"It’s a start. It’s a starting point. That’s all we’ll put, that it’s a starting point," says Fobbs. "But it’s not enough. And just me out there every day in it, working it, you know, that's how I make my living. I've been doing it for over 20 years. It's not enough."

Working with attorneys’ Eric Zajak and Evan Padilla, they filed a civil lawsuit against the Macy’s building owner, among others. More lawsuits could come.

"The loss prevention officers wear a red jacket. They might as well have had a red target on their back, because they were completely defenseless," says Zajac. "There has to be something that grows out of this and that something has to be positive change and the protection of employees and shoppers so that the climate changes."

"This could have been prevented," says Coates. "Macy’s is the gasoline and the city is the light."

Harrison’s parents want the protections in place moving forward that they feel should have already been in place, before they lost their son.

They also want Harrison to be the example and the reason as to why this crime needs to be taken more seriously than ever before.

"I just need them to know that Eric didn't die for nothing," says Fobbs.

"My son is never going to have children. He's never going to, you know, get married. He's never going to do all these first everything. He’s never going to be a father. So, I need his life, his legacy, to mean something. At the end of the day, I need it to."