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Calif. sheriff’s office announces nearly 300 arrests in ‘Operation Bad Elf’ retail theft sting

“Stealing is not OK. These people just go out and steal, not because they’re in need, because they can and they won’t get in trouble,” Sheriff Jim Cooper said

By Rosalio Ahumada
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — Sacramento County Sheriff Jim Cooper on Tuesday announced the results of a weeklong retail theft operation that led to nearly 300 arrests, most of which were misdemeanor citations that failed to meet the felony threshold in California .

Called “Operation Bad Elf,” about 50 sheriff’s detectives spent seven days, from Nov. 27 through Sunday, at 12 stores looking to catch suspected retail thieves red-handed and gather more information about who was committing these crimes. The retail theft operation was conducted as the holiday shopping season was in full swing.

At a news conference, Cooper called retail theft a “major problem” that has grown since California’s Proposition 47 went into effect November 2014 . The state law reclassified certain nonviolent property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors in California .

The sheriff said Prop 47 increased the felony threshold from $400 to $950, which means thefts of merchandise totaling less than $950 is considered a misdemeanor in California . Those arrested are cited with a ticket and ordered to appear in court. Cooper said that’s led to 33,000 misdemeanor warrants in the county — many for people who failed to show up in court and face theft charges.

“People get tickets,” Cooper told reporters. “They don’t show up for court, because they know nothing’s gonna happen. That’s the mentality: ‘Just to walk in and steal whatever, I’m not gonna be in trouble.’”

The sheriff said Prop 47 also allows shoplifters to steal multiple times a day without it being considered a felony, because shoplifting cases and dollar amount totals in retail theft incidents cannot be combined.

California law allows prosecutors to combine multiple instances of misdemeanor theft by a single person or as part of a single conspiracy, so that the cumulative value of items stolen exceeds the felony $950 threshold, according to the Californians for Safety and Justice. The justice reform advocacy group said Assembly Bill 2356, signed into law last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom , clarifies that prosecutors have this ability.

Will Matthews , director of communications for the advocacy group, said property crime rates went down steadily year-over-year beginning in 2016 after voters approved Prop 47. He said California property crime rates reached some of the lowest levels in state history in 2019 and 2020 before ticking up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and 2022.

“The most significant study yet conducted by criminologists at UC Irvine, who relied on more than three decades of comparative data, found Prop. 47 had had no impact on crime rates,” Matthews said in a written statement responding to the sheriff’s news conference.

Matthews said the threshold in California for charging shoplifting as a felony is lower than most other states, including Texas , Mississippi , Arkansas , Alabama , Georgia and South Carolina . And misdemeanor shoplifting, if convicted, can be punishable with up to six months in jail.

The detectives who participated in the sheriff’s operation are regularly assigned to major crimes, gang crimes, property crimes and robbery investigations. Cooper said he felt it was important to divert these detectives to show how bad retail theft is.

Detectives were assisted by Sacramento County Probation Department officers. Cooper said the operation cost the Sheriff’s Office $300,000, with $110,000 coming from a state-funded retail theft grant.

There were 285 arrests made; 78 resulted in felony charges, and the rest were misdemeanors. Of those arrested, 20% were on probation or parole, and 65% had previous arrests for alleged violent crimes, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Retail theft at 12 stores

Tens of thousands of dollars in stolen merchandise was recovered in the operation. Cooper said they were still totaling the final figures, so he didn’t have a specific total on the value of the stolen items.

Shoplifting arrests were made at Rite Aid, Five Below, Ulta, Walgreens, Target, Marshalls, CVS, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Lowe’s, T.J. Maxx and Home Depot stores in the sheriff’s jurisdiction.

Cooper said one store was uncooperative with the operation and would not allow detectives inside their security room, but they still arrested two people there for shoplifting. In a social media post after the news conference, he said sheriff’s officials “were not welcomed” at Ulta.

The sheriff said that response is emblematic of how a lot of bigger retail chains are refusing to confront thieves in the store, but have instead placed common household items behind locked plastic cases, increased prices for customers and closed stores.

“This is not sustainable,” Cooper said. “How are they still profitable? Because (the stores) jacked prices up and they close doors. So, I put a square on their backs.”

Majority of theft suspects weren’t homeless

The Sheriff’s Office wanted to dispel some retail theft myths based on the 285 arrests the detectives made. Most of them were not homeless people: 21% of the suspects arrested were experiencing homelessness. Cooper said about 1%, or four of the 285 arrests, were thefts committed as part of organized crime, and 15% were committed by minors.

Cooper urged retailers to seek a California ballot initiative that he believes would have enough voter support to push back the harmful results of Prop 47. He said it’s daily shoplifting that’s plaguing retailers in this county, not organized retail crime efforts that dominate headlines.

“All we see are the pictures of the big organized retail crime smash-and-grabs; that’s not going on at a high level in Sacramento,” Cooper said. “It’s the daily (shoplifting) ... that faucet is on constantly with these folks doing that. And that’s what we have to change.”

The sheriff said this operation focused on only 12 stores in the county, and there were a lot more where retail theft instead went unchecked during these seven days. It’s not just big-box retailers, he said. Small, family-owned businesses don’t have the means to thwart retail theft on a daily basis.

“Stealing is not OK,” Cooper said. “These people just go out and steal, not because they’re in need, because they can and they won’t get in trouble.”

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