Some state lawmakers want to make it easier for retailers to hold criminals accountable

OLYMPIA - When Q13 News sat down with Bartell Drugs CEO Kathi Lentzsch earlier in the week it got people’s attention.

“It’s startling how Seattle has changed,” Lentzsch said.

Shoplifting cases are overwhelming, but more concerning to Lentzsch are the violent assaults against her employees in Seattle. It’s led her to make a dramatic decision not to open any more branches in the downtown core.

“It’s very sad that a pillar in Seattle will have to make a statement like that,” Rep. Dan Griffey said.

Griffey says after hearing the story of Bartell Drugs on Q13 News, he is doubling down on his efforts to help retailers hold criminals accountable.

“It identifies a larger problem in Washington state that we are ignoring property crime,” Griffey said.

Griffey wants to amend the definition of theft to include concealment, so that police officers or loss prevention employees can stop a person inside a store rather than having to wait for them to exit the store with items hidden in their clothes or purse. The initiative has bipartisan support.

“Right now there is a sort of grey area of whether they can intervene or not we want to make it clear that they can,” Rep. Roger Goodman said.

Goodman says those who intend to steal will conceal and brazenly know they can get away with it.

On Friday, Lentzsch says she’s happy lawmakers are talking about the issue, but she says the bill may not help with the bigger issue of violent repeat offenders. Lentzsch wants a comprehensive solution that includes mental health and drug addiction resources. Griffey agrees.

“A lot of the times these people are suffering from something, and usually it’s substance abuse,” Griffey said.

Both Griffey and Goodman say funding for behavioral health is crucial in the overall fight. That’s why they support a state budget pending approval that would pump hundreds of millions of dollars more into fighting mental illness and drug abuse.

“We are building a new mental health hospital that is going to study the latest and greatest ways of treatment,” Griffey said.

Lawmakers say the goal is to build a new mental health teaching hospital at the University of Washington. He says it will not only study treatments but treat people who need it the most.

“A lot of the people who steal from a store have a behavioral health disorder, and we don’t want to be subjecting them to criminal process. We want to intervene as early as possible and provide a therapeutic option,” Goodman said.

But at the same time, Griffey says it’s still important to keep criminals accountable.

“If we don’t engage and interact with those people who are shoplifting and we look the other way the start has to be here,” Griffey said.

Griffey believes HB 1159 would allow retailers in most cases to recoup their items and enable them to give perpetrators trespassing notices and a warning not to enter their store again.

Griffey says retail theft amount to nearly $400 million annually in Washington state.