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Shoplifting cases in Missoula have almost doubled since 2020

Recent Board of Crime Control data shows there were 1,185 shoplifting reports in Missoula in 2023
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Posted at 9:00 AM, Jun 17, 2024

MISSOULA — For a business owner, stolen merchandise can be an expensive issue, and for Missoula businesses, shoplifting is becoming more and more common.

Shoplifting in Missoula has almost doubled over the past four years, so business owners are trying to find solutions with the city and county to alleviate some of the negative impacts.

The Montana Board of Crime Control collects data from the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office and the Missoula Police Department on various reported property crimes, including theft from a motor vehicle, theft from a building and shoplifting.

The numbers include data both from the City of Missoula and Missoula County, but most of the shoplifting crime happens within city limits, according to Missoula County Attorney, Matt Jennings.

The recent Board of Crime Control data shows there were 600 shoplifting reports in Missoula in 2020 and 1185 reports in 2023.

The Board of Crime Control says the numbers for 2023 are likely underestimated, as they were not updated past November.

Jennings says the increase could be due to a change in policies for shoplifting charges.

Any shoplifting incident that totals under $1,500 is a misdemeanor, which typically results in some sort of fine.

The Montana State Legislature removed jail time for a misdemeanor offense, and the City of Missoula removed the possibility for misdemeanor probation after COVID-19.

“And so we get a lot of repeat criminals, somebody that might have dozens and dozens of thefts in a matter of years, but as long as each one of those is under $1,500 they never get a felony,” Jennings says.

The threshold for a felony theft is decided at the state level, so the Missoula County Attorney’s office does not have another option other than a fine for most shoplifting incidents.

A misdemeanor theft charge will not result in jail time, no matter if it is the third, fifth or twentieth offense.

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Bretz RV & Marine is among the many businesses in Missoula struggling to stop shoplifting and theft.

Jennings says without the ability to charge a perpetrator with a felony, there isn’t enough incentive for the person to stop committing crimes.

“We need to make sure that we are holding them accountable and using all the tools that we have at our disposal to stop that behavior from happening, but also treat the underlying issues that are leading them to that criminal behavior,” he says.

With a felony conviction, the county has a lot more resources to use in order to both support and punish the person committing a crime. For example, a person charged with felony theft could gain access to mandatory drug and alcohol counseling or probation.

“So there are times where a felony can actually be to society’s benefit and the offenders' benefit because we can hold them accountable, but we can also get them more resources,” Jennings said.

While there has been a clear increase in property crime in Missoula, Jennings says most of the crime is committed by a small group of people.

For long-standing businesses, it’s easy to notice the change in Missoula.

Brandon Bretz took over his grandparent’s business, Bretz RV & Marine, which has been open since 1967. The location on Grant Creek Road in Missoula was built in 1999.

“For the first 20 years that we were here, we had very little trouble with theft, with vandalism,” Bretz says. “Over the last four years, we’ve had a huge increase in the amount of times we’ve found holes in the fence and things stolen from trailers and trailers damaged and we’ve even had three trailers get stolen completely off the lot in the last couple of years.”

For Bretz, the increase in theft has had a negative impact on his business, costing him thousands of dollars not only in lost merchandise but also in insurance.

“Multiple thefts into the insurance carrier is not a viable way to cover the cost of this problem,” he says.

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Brandon Bretz, CEO of Bretz RV & Marine, has noticed a severe uptick in theft at his business over the past four years.

Hearing concerns from multiple businesses like Bretz RV & Marine, Missoula Chamber of Commerce president, Mark Losh, decided to host a property crime roundtable discussion.

At the roundtable event, businesses were free to share their stories and ask the County Attorney’s Office and the Missoula Police Department questions.

“The whole focus was, you could tell us what's going on, but let's work on a solution. It does not do any good to complain if you don't give a solution,” Losh says. “If we can educate the businesses on what the laws and the rules are… it helps the police and the sheriffs be able to– and the courts– be able to then serve justice.”

The Missoula Chamber of Commerce is expecting to host another property crime discussion in July.

Losh hopes to use the information gathered at the events to coordinate with other chambers of commerce across the state and put pressure on legislators to make a change.

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Mark Losh, president of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, has heard more and more shoplifting complaints from businesses, so he decided to host a property crime roundtable discussion in early May.

For Jennings, any solution should target the root of the problem.

“We can have compassion, knowing that there are some people that are desperate and they're making mistakes, and we need to hold them accountable for those mistakes, but we also need to figure out how we can get them in a better position so that doesn't keep happening,” he says. “Punishment alone won't necessarily stop people from committing the next crime, but also social services alone won't give them an indication that this behavior isn't okay.”

Businesses at the roundtable event learned more about the current system of prosecution and how they can aid the police.

For example, it is important for the victim of the crime, which is often the business owner or employee, to stay involved in the investigation.

If the business is not represented during the trial and at the sentencing, it is more likely that the convicted party will receive a lighter punishment, according to Jennings.

Another option for businesses is to label a repeat shoplifter as “trespassed.” This can be done by the business getting the person’s name and clearly saying they are no longer allowed in the business, having police on sight to tell the person that they are no longer allowed in the business, or charging the person with a misdemeanor and having the judge tell the person that they are no longer allowed in the business.

If a person is labeled “trespassed” and they try to steal or assault anyone in the store again, they can be arrested for burglary, which is a felony crime.

A burglary offense is only used in very serious situations of shoplifting, according to Jennings, and shouldn’t be used in every case.

As far as stopping a theft as it happens, there is not much a business can do. If they call the police, an arrest will not be made if the merchandise stolen totals under $1500.

For larger companies, like Walmart or Scheels, there may be an option of private security, but for smaller retail shops in Missoula, it’s often an employee who is forced to try and stop a shoplifter.

“It puts the clerk, the frontline person, the employee on the floor, in a very compromising and dangerous position, and it puts a big burden on the business itself to keep staff,” Losh says. “I mean, if a person's working at a store that is constantly having this problem, it makes that person feel unsafe, they don't want to stay. So it creates an issue for the employer of not only staffing but inventory.”

Overall, a solution to rising property crime rates in Missoula won’t be a quick fix, but for Jennings, a great start would be opening the door to felony offenses or increasing the resources available for misdemeanor offenses.

“I think there's a lot of tools that we have that are already at our disposal, but maybe we're not using them effectively right now,” Jennings says.