- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

DOVER, Del. (AP) - A controversial approach to reducing shoplifting by posting suspects’ arrest photos has been declared a success in Dover, despite complaints about violations of civil rights.

The four-month pilot project called the “Shoplifter Notification Program,” which started in August, produced a 19 percent drop in such crimes, city police said.

“That was huge,” said Cpl. Mark Hoffman, Dover Police Department’s public information officer, who suggested the project after seeing similar efforts on other forces’ webpages.

The drop in shoplifting was especially significant, he said, because the project period included the end-of-year holidays.

“That’s our busiest time of year for shoplifting,” Hoffman said, adding that stores also are their busiest, and that youngsters with school vacations and time on their hands tend to raise the rate of merchandise thefts.

While similar efforts by departments elsewhere have seen legal challenges or public outcries, Dover has gotten some grousing but no formal complaints, he said.

“There have been a few people that asked, ‘Can I get my picture taken down?’” he said, and in one case, a posted photo was blacked out after the person’s criminal record was expunged.

The department knew of challenges to such postings elsewhere before starting its effort, Hoffman said, so “we got a review by the city solicitor to make sure there were no legal issues or constitutional issues with it.”

Before Dover’s project started, ACLU of Delaware Executive Director Kathleen MacRae said posting photos of people who have not gone through the judicial system was a disservice, partly because people may be arrested by mistake and charges later dropped.

“The underlying principal of our system of justice is that people are innocent until they are found guilty,” she said, calling photo displays based on arrests “a violation of somebody’s civil rights and an extremely inappropriate action to be taken.”

Aurora, Colorado, officials started the practice in 2014, but after complaints, switched to posting only photos of convicted shoplifters.

Police in the Houston, Texas, suburb of Rosenberg - whose posts inspired Hoffman’s project proposal - have had some complaints over more than two years of posting shoplifting suspects’ mugshots, credited for a 14 percent drop in such crimes.

In response to complaints, that department added a note to its posts saying they reflect actual arrests, although suspects are “innocent until proven guilty” - a disclaimer built into Dover’s format.

Loss prevention specialist Scott Campbell, who works in a large department store in Dover, said the city police photo posting program “helps in many ways.”

First, Campbell said, “it helps us identify shoplifters when they walk in the door.

“It’s also helped us identify several shoplifters who have run that we weren’t able to identify,” he said, adding they have been recognized from police photos after arrests at other stores.

“I’ve seen a lot of new ones that haven’t come back,” he said, adding that merchants still must deal with chronic repeat offenders, typically homeless.

“(They) go to jail and come out and an hour later, they’re back in the store again shoplifting,” he said.

The four-month project’s impact also translated into a double-digit impact on the year’s statistics, with a 12 percent drop for 2014 compared to the year before, Hoffman said.

With those tangible results and largely positive feedback, Hoffman said, the department plans to “continue the program for the foreseeable future.”

He said the pilot project also drove down the total number of shoplifting cases last year below 1,000 for the first time since 2010.

The postings aim for two-sided impact - helping merchants and deterring shoplifters.

Because shoplifters typically are repeat offenders, he said, the posts help store owners and employees “be better informed when monitoring their stores and inventory.”

He said police hope “suspects will think twice before stealing merchandise in fear that their name and photo will be shared with the public.”

Some studies have shown that shoplifters get caught only once in 48 times, Hoffman said, noting that - with nearly 3,300 shoplifting cases in the city over the last three years - the crime has become a consistent problem.

While many regard shoplifting as a petty crime only nipping businesses’ profits, Hoffman called that “a common misconception.”

Across the country, he said, research has shown that more than $13 billion worth of merchandise is stolen annually. At more than $5 million a day, shoplifting increases expenses for security and costs are passed to consumers, he said.

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com


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