Patrick Robinson
Liquor theft in Seattle and King County is becoming big black market business as a need for cheap liquor that avoids tax markups arises. Grocery stores are taking various steps to reduce theft, including locking up the aisle during certain hours, as seen here.

Privatization and plastic bag ban factor into liquor theft spike

Liquor moved into the private sector from state control in Washington this summer, and according to police it is now leaving retail locations unannounced at an alarming rate as a black market for stolen liquor that avoids state-imposed taxes has formed.

With large open plans, multiple exits and entrances, booze on shelves just like canned goods, and, according to one grocery store owner, the plastic bag ban making it common for people to come in with their own bags - supermarkets have become the primary target.

The story has been picked up by media citywide, and Seattle Police announced their first sting operation striking at the black market on Nov. 2, providing insight into why thieves are working the liquor aisles hard, stealing, at times, thousands of dollars worth of alcohol in a single heist. Corporate offices of large grocery store chains have been mum on the subject, and many are wondering if stores will need to move liquor from the store aisles to behind the counters, or at least increase security along those aisles.

We decided to take a look theft levels in White Center and Burien, and talked with a few retail store owners in the area to get a feel for what they are up against.

But first, a look at what the SPD sting called “Operation Cheapshots” revealed about the operation. Jonah Spangenthal-Lee with SPD wrote that six people were arrested in early November, all allegedly involved in large theft rings that were stealing booze and reselling (at much lower prices than the legal market) to high schoolers and wedding parties There have also been reports of reselling to bars, restaurants and everyday people who want a cheaper bottle of liquor.

Police arrested a liquor thief in North Seattle who became an informant, and told them he was stealing anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 worth of liquor a month from grocery stores. He told police the stolen goods were being redistributed by two business owners in the Pike Place Market and employees at a downtown parking garage.

Detectives went undercover for six weeks, according to the report, and were sold bottles stolen from grocers including Safeway and QFC “for pennies on the dollar.” Pike Place Flowers, an iconic corner market at Pike and 1st, was busted for allegedly setting up a liquor sale for an undercover cop who came in asking for wedding flowers. The owner allegedly asked if he would like liquor to go with his flowers, and quickly called in an order to thieves for hundreds of bottles.

Sobering statistics
Deputy William Charlie Akers with the King County Sheriff’s Office provided statistics that illustrate the spike in thefts. Looking at grocery stores countywide over the course of four months (from July 1 until Nov. 2), Akers said there have been 56 documented thefts – 36 misdemeanors and 20 felonies. Those numbers, of course, only account for those who got caught.

For comparison, the liquor store on 15th Ave S.W. in White Center had 47 document thefts over a 14 year period from 1998 to 2012, with two of those occurring after July 1st when privatization kicked in.

Looking at three large grocery stores in White Center and Burien, Akers said there have been 13 misdemeanor theft arrests, one felony theft arrest, and one attempted theft arrest in the four months since privatization kicked in.

A major West Seattle grocery store owner who asked not to be identified (as, he said, it always seems to lead to more theft), said, “We’ve seen a major increase in theft since privatization.” As a result, the owner has improved camera and security measures to catch more people.

As one checker put it, “You know what they do don’t you? They don’t steal it to drink it. They sell it to you cheaper out on the streets so they can get the money.”

The owner also said Seattle’s plastic bag ban has caused issues for supermarkets.

“One that's made it worse is the new bag law that lets people come in the store with something to conceal it in,” he said. “We can't ask people not to shop with their bag ... (people are) putting items in it before check out, so it's an issue."

How about the smaller stores?
The theft problem has not been as great in smaller drugstores or state-run-turned-private liquor stores, due in part to smaller spaces and fewer exits and entrances, allowing for better control of the environment. A Burien liquor store has had one misdemeanor theft in those four months, for example.

Employees at Independent Liquor and Wine in West Seattle backed up the numbers, saying they have had only a few attempted thefts since opening and have not had large amounts of inventory walking out unannounced. Leon Capelouto, owner of Capco Plaza in the Junction and the Premier Liquor Store housed within, said he purposely hired only ex-state liquor store employees to run his store because of their expertise in spotting thieves in that environment. He said, like any retail venture, there has been some theft, but nothing like the levels in grocery stores.

Some smaller drug stores have made the decision to move liquor behind their counters as well, further safeguarding from theft.

Capelouto said the fact that only those 21 and older (unless accompanied by an adult) can enter his store also restricts opportunities for theft, while grocery stores “have to let everyone in.”

In contrast, Sgt. Cindi West with KCSO said of those arrested in grocery store liquor thefts since privatization, only a small minority have been under the age of 21.

Looking at other alcohol-related offenses since privatization
We asked Deputy Akers for statistics in White Center and Burien on other alcohol-related crimes to see if they have increased along with theft, including DUIs, public drunkenness calls and liquor violations including underage drinking.

According to statistics for those areas, that is not the case. We looked at June to September in 2011 (when liquor could only be purchased at state-run locations with limited hours), and the same time frame in 2012, after the switch.

Clumped together into a single alcohol-related crime number, here are the results:

June: 15 (2011) vs. 6 (2012)
July: 9 (2011) vs. 12 (2012)
August: 11 (2011) vs. 12 (2012)
Sept: 13 (2011) vs. 10 (2012)

Black markets have a way of developing at a rapid pace when a need arises, and the higher costs of liquor post-privatization have provided that incentive. For now it is a waiting game to see if grocery stores find the theft losses high enough to implement their own restrictions, or whether the state might jump in with regulations.

With every bottle that walks unpaid, the state loses tax revenue intended to cover the cost of losing the liquor market.

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