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At Water Tower Place, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs measure to confront organized retail theft

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday signed into law a measure aimed at groups that engage in large-scale retail theft and then sell the stolen goods online.

Pritzker signed the bill at Water Tower Place on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, a commercial strip that has been the site of high-profile property crimes in recent years.

Organized retail crime has garnered headlines through both smash-and-grab thefts at high-end stores and large-scale operations targeting railroad and trucking cargo. The pilfered goods are often sold online and in some cases, officials have said, the proceeds are used in furtherance of more serious crimes, like human trafficking and gun trafficking.

The bill created some tensions during the spring legislative session in Springfield before passing. Civil libertarian groups were initially concerned that the bill could wind up targeting women who had been coerced into taking part in theft rings through abusive relationships or human trafficking.

Proponents stressed the intent of the measure was to go after ringleaders of the organized theft outfits.

On Friday, Pritzker sought to make clear that the legislation “is not aimed at a low-income parent desperate to feed their child” or “a kid making a shortsighted mistake.”

“This is about a multibillion-dollar industry of organized criminals carrying out sophisticated theft operations to turn a profit on the resale market,” Pritzker said. “No, this is not about the one-off shoplifting incident. It’s much bigger than that. This is about the safety of our communities. It’s about preventing militarized storefronts and empty commercial corridors.”

The legislation had bipartisan support in the General Assembly. It was sponsored by state Sen. Suzy Glowiak Hilton, a Democrat from Western Springs, and state Rep. Kam Buckner, a Democrat who announced Thursday he’s running for mayor of Chicago in 2023.

The bill signing comes in an election year as Pritzker and other Democrats are being accused by Republicans of being soft on crime.

The new law allows county prosecutors to pursue cases for these types of crimes carried out in different counties; creates a “statewide intelligence platform” to enhance coordination between retailers and law enforcement; and requires online third-party marketplaces to verify their users’ identities with bank account or other information to make sure they’re legitimate.

“In the old days, you’re familiar with maybe small groups engaging in retail theft and pawning out items at the pawnshop or at a flea market or in the back alley,” Attorney General Kwame Raoul said at Friday’s bill signing. “(Now) these crime rings utilize online marketplaces to easily resell these items.”

At Water Tower Place, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs measure to confront organized retail theft

In late March, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, or ICJIA, issued a memo questioning a claim by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association that “Illinois has become the epicenter” for organized retail theft, which it said was growing nationally by roughly “60% in the past five years.”

ICJIA believed the claim came from a national survey of an “unrepresentative, anonymous sample” of 61 retail companies. According to the memo, the 60% figure from the National Retail Federation was calculated in terms of “costs to retailers” instead of how often these crimes actually occur.

There is indeed no way to quantify exactly how often organized retail crime occurs. But crime statistics in Chicago show there’s been a drop in some property crimes of the sort that might encompass organized retail theft.

For example, the number of burglaries throughout Chicago dropped 43% between 2018 and the end of last year. In police beat 1833, which includes Water Tower Place and North Michigan Avenue, there were 10 burglaries reported last year and 11 in 2018.

Burglaries on that beat, however, soared to 68 in 2020, but that was largely because of widespread looting that August amid protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Retail theft in Chicago dropped 42% between 2018 and last year. In beat 1833, retail theft was down 60% over the same period.

Despite such figures, Raoul insisted that organized retail crime is on the rise based on “tax revenue loss,” not actual crime statistics.

“I’m talking about people who are afraid to walk out here on Michigan Avenue to go shopping or to Oakbrook Center, or quite frankly in the neighborhoods,” he said. “I’m talking about if you walk into a Walgreens or a CVS it becomes increasingly inconvenient because they have to protect their products. You have to get an attendant to unlock things. There’s all sorts of evidence of this going up, not down.”

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