Mentor police set out to thwart drug-related retail theft with a pilot program launched in 2015.

Now results are showing a correlation between the Retail Theft Crime Deterrence Program and a plunge in addicts stealing to support their habit.

Out of 81 arrests last year, nearly 60 were of admitted drug addicts. The overwhelming drug of choice continues to be heroin.

Midway through this year, the grant-funded program has produced 38 arrests, 86 charges, 10 warrants and nearly $8,000 worth of recovered goods. Of those apprehended, only 14 were addicts.

“The looks on their faces are priceless,” said Paul, a Mentor police officer who works undercover as part of the program. “They have no idea that they’ve been surveilled until we walk around to the other side of the counter and flash our badge.”

While the program is accomplishing its goals, work remains to curtail the efforts of addicts and others, such as those involved in organized theft rings, law enforcers say.

By the numbers

Programs such as Mentor’s are uncommon, because of lack of manpower or funding, experts say.

The Mentor program is funded by an Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services matching grant of about $25,000. The city contributes half of that amount, used to provide overtime for officers to surveil participating stores.

Funding is in place for at least two more years. The department is working to determine future funding opportunities.

The program is directed at three groups of retail establishments: “big-box” stores, grocery stores and drugstores. More than 70 retailers are now a part of the network, including 35 retailers at Great Lakes Mall, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Kohl’s, Old Navy and Wal-Mart.

Among the most popular ploys of perpetrators is returning stolen items for gift cards and then redeeming them at local pawn shops at a discount. Law enforcers say they are aware of such schemes and that it’s only a matter of time before these opportunities are shut down.

Many retailers are fighting back by sharing gift card redemption information with law enforcement when certain patterns are detected.

Mentor is the sixth-largest retail destination in Ohio with 300-plus stores and 170 eateries. More than $1.9 billion in sales are generated annually, so it’s an important part of the city’s economy, said Ante Logarusic, community relations administrator.

“The city is pleased to see the level of cooperation that continues to grow between our retail partners and Mentor police,” he said. “Mentor is a great place to eat, shop and play, and we mean to keep it that way.”

More than 40 law enforcement and loss prevention representatives gathered recently to discuss their experiences and what’s ahead.

Mentor police have seen increased communication between stores and the department over the years.

“Before, the stores used to call us after a theft was committed,” said Mentor Patrolman Jim Collier, crime prevention specialist. “Today, (loss prevention officers) oftentimes contact us as soon as they spot a suspect in their store.”

Local agencies key

Last year, the FBI estimated that organized retail crime is costing U.S. retailers up to $60 million annually.

A 2016 organized retail crime survey conducted by the National Retail Federation revealed that 83 percent of respondents — 59 loss prevention executives — reported that such activity had increased in the past 12 months. Forty-four percent reported a “significant increase.”

Many of the cases had to do with online fraud. However, the survey indicated that criminals and shoplifters are becoming “more aggressive and brazen.”

In addition, 56 percent of respondents said they haven’t seen any additional support from law enforcement for combating such crime.

Robert Moraca, vice president of loss prevention for NRF, urges retailers to be proactive in building relationships with local law enforcement.

“The rubber meets the road in the communities you live in,” he said, in a December NRF news article. “Corporate LP policies are not enough. LP personnel on the local level have to meet with their local police departments as a part of community policing/crime prevention programs.”

Brian, a Mentor-based loss prevention officer who asked not to be more specifically identified, is thankful for the Police Department’s continued assistance.

“With an increase in the unpredictability of a desperate shoplifter, the position of a loss prevention officer is riskier than ever,” he said. “It’s a relief to know that I have the full support of the Police Department when needed to assist with the apprehension of a possibly dangerous suspect. The city of Mentor’s police officers have helped me out on numerous occasions where I am sure the results would not have been as desirable otherwise.”

Joining forces

One of the most effective tools of the program is police and loss prevention officers sharing the identities of repeat offenders. A monthly “hot list” is provided to participating stores.

“This program’s immediate impact on this store and the community has been great,” said Cordell Black, who provides asset protection for Target in Mentor. “The less criminals that we have coming into our stores, where our families shop, and walking the streets, where our families live, the better.”

Shoplifting arrests often can contribute to investigations being conducted by other law enforcement organizations.

“We have a great relationship with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and Lake County Narcotics,” Paul said.

Mentor police work closely with Municipal Court Judge John Trebets as well.

“The sentencing on a first offense really depends on a couple of factors,” Collier said. “A second offense will automatically result in a six-month sentence from Judge Trebets.”

Those arrested also can be charged with trespassing if they’re ever found in the store again.