New York

Retail Theft Rises, and N.Y.C. Small Business Owners Are Paying the Price

Someone shattered the front door overnight and ripped out the cash drawer. The new security gates cost $2,300. The streets became quieter after four neighboring businesses closed permanently during the pandemic, emboldening shoplifters. Two security guards quit.

For Deborah Koenigsberger, who has worked in retail for three decades, keeping her two clothing stores open in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood has never felt so exhausting.

“As small businesses, we are getting creamed right now in so many ways,” Ms. Koenigsberger said. “I might as well leave my store door open and say, ‘Help yourselves.’”

Her shops are among businesses in New York City grappling with a rise in crimes that has cascaded from the disruptions of the last two years. The pandemic exacerbated job losses, mental illness and drug abuse, which law enforcement officials and business owners say has contributed to increasingly brazen behavior from people walking into neighborhood stores, from shoplifting to assaults.

The debate over the underlying causes has also focused on New York’s bail laws, on a police force distracted by a spike in shootings and on online marketplaces where organized retail crews can easily sell stolen goods.

As the city emerges from the public health crisis, officials say a sense of safety is critical to its economic recovery.

Last year, complaints of retail theft were about 16 percent higher than in 2019, according to the New York Police Department. But arrest rates have dropped, with about 28 percent of the complaints resulting in arrests last year, compared with 48.5 percent in 2019.

An index of major crimes, including murders and felony assaults, was up 7.5 percent in the same period, but still lower last year than in 2015.

Though New York remains one of the safest large cities in America, a poll released this month by Quinnipiac University found that 74 percent of its voters believe crime is a “very serious” problem.

Safety worries could influence the willingness of commuters to go to work, whether that workplace is an investment bank or a bodega. Some small businesses are closing earlier at night because workers are afraid to stay late.

The effort to find a solution has led to a contentious debate about how much policing and incarceration should be part of the answer. In interviews, some workers said they were reluctant to even call the police, fearing retaliation from the offender or believing there is not much the police can do to stop the problem.

The city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, is lobbying to toughen the state’s bail laws, which were amended in 2019, allowing more people who had been arrested to remain free while their cases were pending. Law enforcement officials blame the changes for making it harder to keep certain defendants, like serial shoplifters, detained after an arrest.

“We can’t have a city where our drugstores and bodegas and restaurants are leaving because people are walking into the stores, taking whatever they want on the shelves and walking out,” Mr. Adams told the State Legislature recently.

Left-leaning lawmakers accuse Mr. Adams of fearmongering, pointing out that crime in New York is still near historically low levels and that judges can still set bail in many cases. Gustavo Rivera, a Democratic state senator representing the Bronx, said, “Communities are safer when they have more resources, not when they’re overpoliced.’’

The state’s preliminary data on recidivism shows that roughly 2 percent of people released because of the bail laws were rearrested before trial on a violent felony. But the data is incomplete and lacking detail, making it difficult to assess the impact of reforms.

Caught in the political tug of war are the city’s small businesses, which are already facing lower foot traffic and labor shortages.

The issue has gained particular attention in Manhattan, where Alvin Bragg, the new district attorney, formed a task force focused on preventing shoplifting and robberies. It was announced after Mr. Bragg had been criticized by business leaders and police officials for issuing a memo about taking a more lenient approach to prosecutions.

In Manhattan, home to the largest share of the city’s jobs, neighborhoods struggling the most include those that relied on commuters before the pandemic and those that have a large concentration of drug treatment centers, according to interviews with small business workers.

At some chain drugstores, even low-priced items are behind locked cases. Business owners say that the risk of physical injury and the modest value of stolen goods often make it not worth trying to stop shoplifting.

The Police Department said one reason the arrest rate had dropped for retail thefts was because there was more stealing at stores without security guards who were willing to detain shoplifters.

During the pandemic, organized crews nationwide also increasingly targeted retailers, stealing large quantities of merchandise to resell online.

Shoplifting, a longstanding issue for small businesses, took on a more unpredictable form in the last year, according to Joseph Lorenzo, the owner of Macson Shoes, a store that has been in Washington Heights for 45 years. He said more people have walked into his shop who appear to be on drugs or mentally unstable.

“The fear and unpredictability of these guys turning violent is what scares us the most,’’ Mr. Lorenzo said.

With police officials focused on stemming increased gun violence, many small business owners feel they are left to fend for themselves.

Last summer, a man walked into the Monkey Cup, a Venezuelan cafe in Harlem, demanding free coffee, according to Laura Leonardi, a co-owner. After receiving one, he began arguing with Ms. Leonardi’s husband and punched him in the face, video footage showed. The man then punched Ms. Leonardi after she leapt from the counter. He fled before the police arrived.

In November, a different man walked in naked while a child was in the shop, refusing to leave. He came back two months later and smashed a stool to pieces.

Two weeks ago, the man walked in again repeatedly, until a barista pointed him out to a police officer who happened to be in the cafe. The man was arrested, a scene that Ms. Leonardi described as “horrible in every way.”

“I am conflicted,” she said. “To send him to jail, you maybe transform him into something worse.”

The aftermath of a robbery can be a financial burden for small businesses, even when the amount stolen is small.

Julia Larock was working at Blue Marble Ice Cream, an ice cream shop on the Upper West Side, in November when a man showed up twice in three days, claiming to have a gun and demanding money. He took a total of $32. Each time, the shop closed for the day as the police swept for fingerprints and interviewed employees.

The suspect, Joshua Tirado, 31, was arrested, and a judge released him without bail on Nov. 11. He came back to the store a few days later. Although he just looked around and left, Ms. Larock felt targeted and quit.

“You don’t know how a situation will escalate,” said Ms. Larock, who now works at a start-up that advertises artwork.

Mr. Tirado was arrested again in December and accused of stealing jewelry from a Macy’s in Midtown. Prosecutors wanted supervised release, which would have freed him without bail but with check-ins and potential referral to social services, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

A judge disagreed with the prosecutors’ request, setting $15,000 bail. But Mr. Tirado was released within a week without any supervision when prosecutors failed to produce the documents required to keep him in jail.

A spokesman for the Legal Aid Society, which is representing Mr. Tirado, said his case “underscores the need for more comprehensive services.”

Angel Valdez, another Blue Marble employee, worries that letting people shoplift will make the store more vulnerable. But he was also threatened when he tried to stop someone from stealing a shirt.

“I don’t have the luxury to leave this job even though every single day, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen,” said Mr. Valdez, who has a second job as a restaurant server.

Beyond the financial loss, employees must contend with the anxiety of returning to work after a traumatic incident.

Abdul Alhirsh has had trouble sleeping since a man walked into his smoothie store last month shortly after 6 p.m., pulled what looked like a handgun from his bag and demanded money. Mr. Alhirsh froze and gave him everything in the cashier’s box, about $500.

It was the first armed robbery Mr. Alhirsh had experienced in 13 years of working behind the counter at Health King, near Times Square.

Corey Samerson, 23, was arrested in the theft and accused of committing at least three other armed robberies in Manhattan in early January.

Mr. Samerson had just spent almost four years in federal prison for a similar string of armed robberies. At his sentencing in 2019, he told the court that he committed them to pay for drugs.

In a letter to the judge in 2019, Mr. Samerson’s mother said she had pleaded with everyone — from church youth leaders to Mr. Samerson’s probation officer — for help with his drug addiction, anger issues and suicidal thoughts.

“Here I am with a young man with so much potential but crying out for help,” she wrote, “and there are no resources.”

In the current case, Mr. Samerson, who remains in custody, was ordered by a judge to receive medical treatment last month. His lawyer declined to comment.

As Mr. Alhirsh was recovering from that robbery, he was attacked again. Earlier this month, he ran out of the store to stop someone who had stolen a bottle of coconut water. The person’s accomplice shoved him to the sidewalk, according to video footage. It was about 9 p.m., and no one was around to help. Mr. Alhirsh stood up in a daze, hands bleeding, and walked back into the store.

Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Jonah E. Bromwich contributed reporting.

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