December 7, 2023
CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. — Despite overall crime dropping across much of the country, retail theft is on the rise, and in Western New York, more organized crime rings are targeting local stores.
“It has increased drastically over the years,” said Patrolman Donald Szumigala, a crime analyst with the Cheektowaga Police Department.
Szumigala said organized retail crime is a criminal enterprise with a group of people conspiring to steal goods and then resell them for profit.
“We’re seeing definitely more and more organized retail crime,” said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn.
Shoplifting-related calls in Cheektowaga — home of the Walden Galleria and several large shopping plazas — went from between 800 and 900 per year from 2018 to 2021 has spiked over the past two years. It’s unclear how much of that is due to organized theft, but authorities say that problem is worsening.
The Retail Council of New York State says retail theft hit $4.4 billion last year, and a significant portion of that is attributed to organized groups.
“They’re very high-tech,” Szumigala said. “They’re multi-level.”
At the top is the crime boss. His or her deputies are the middlemen. At the bottom are so-called “boosters”, who do the actual stealing.
“Just like at a workplace, you know, you’ve got a boss,” Szumigala said. “You’ve got middle management. You’ve got the person at the bottom doing all the work. The organized crime works in the exact same way.”
Police say people who are addicted to drugs are often targeted for the “booster” positions because the bosses prey on that dependency.
It’s often difficult for authorities to identify the higher-ups because the “boosters” are often simply issued appearance tickets and don’t have much of an incentive to give up information.
“We’ll make that arrest 5 times, 10 times, 15 times,” Szumigala said. “We’ll arrest that same person 2 or 3 times a day.”
District Attorney Flynn is trying a new approach to fight back. His prosecutors will seek orders of protection, ordering suspected criminals to stay away from the target of their alleged theft.
“If you come back and violate that order of protection … that’s now a burglary,” Flynn said. “That’s now a serious felony where now I can put bail on you.”
Police and prosecutors hope that will encourage more of the “boosters” to cooperate with investigators to try to break up the crime rings.
While there’s a big focus on the Walden Galleria and big box stores, small businesses are also targeted.
Don Vidler, co-owner of Vidler’s 5 & 10 on Main Street in East Aurora, said his business isn’t immune, but he takes steps to minimize his losses.
“(We) probably have more cameras than people realize,” Vidler said. “Our employees are good.”
He added that officers with the Village of East Aurora/Town of Aurora Police Department will sometimes patrol inside stores during the busy holiday season.
Coordination is key to breaking up organized crime rings, so Assemblymember Monica Wallace (D-143rd District) co-sponsored a bill to create a state task force to study the problem and help police departments better address it.
Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed the bill, along with legislation that would have created other task forces, because of the expense. She wants them included in the upcoming budget.
“We’ll be having discussions about prioritizing budgetary issues, and this I think is one that we should have discussions about moving forward,” Wallace said.
In a statement, Melissa O’Connor, the president and CEO of the Retail Council of New York State, said she was “disappointed” in the governor’s veto, but remained hopeful.
“(The governor) made it abundantly clear that retail theft prevention will be a priority for her administration, and we look forward to working with her to achieve results,” O’Connor said.
Back in Cheektowaga, the town’s new police chief said his department will continue to prioritize going after these organized retail crime groups.
“If we don’t do that, if we just throw up our hands and prices are rising, stores are closing,” Chief Brian Coons said. “The (Galleria) makes up a large percentage of income for Erie County tax. if we lose that mall, what happens then?”