Commentary: Stop retail theft? Store owners say this bill will promote it

"It aims to prohibit employers from requiring workers, even security personnel, to confront active suspected shoplifters,“ writes columnist Thomas Elias about SB 553.|

While California has a long, sad history of poorly thought-out laws often passed for reasons of ideology, there is no way state legislators can pretend after passage that they weren’t warned about the current Senate Bill 553, the brainchild of Silicon Valley state Sen. Dave Cortese, a Democrat.

His measure, which had a committee hearing just three days after a flash mob of 30 or more men and women pulled a snatch-and-grab robbery of a Nordstrom store in the Westfield Topanga Mall in the Canoga Park section of Los Angeles, passed the Senate on a 29-8 vote as a worker safety measure.

It aims to prohibit employers from requiring workers, even security personnel, to confront active suspected shoplifters. This, of course, raised the question of why any store would hire security folks if they can’t be expected to confront thieves they’ve caught in the act. Why also have security cameras making videos in stores? Why not just give everything away?

The very minimal consequence of this proposed new law would be that retailers of all types will keep almost all goods of significant value behind locked glass panels, thus preventing shoppers from examining possible purchases except under supervision and preventing many customers in grocery and drug stores from scrutinizing ingredient lists. It promises to make shopping a stark, inauspicious experience.

Cortese says his bill aims to protect retail employees from violence by relieving them of any responsibility to confront thieves, even if that’s the job they were hired for.

“With growing awareness of workplace violence,” he said, “California needs smarter guidelines to keep workers safe…” He notes all employers would be required to train every worker on how to react to active shoplifting. “Let’s take every step to prevent another workplace assault or shooting,” he added.

But retailers say the real life consequence will amount to an open invitation for thieves to take whatever they like, just like the latest large flash mob, which stole more than $100,000 worth of jewelry and designer goods from the Topanga Mall Nordstrom and then fled in a fleet of cars reportedly including multiple luxury BMW and Lexus vehicles.

If they pass the Costese bill, legislators won’t be able to shrug this off by saying they weren’t forewarned.

For about 500 small business owners traveled to Sacramento from points like Fresno, Modesto and the North San Francisco Bay area to protest SB 553 and urge legislators to protect small businesses, not their predators.

Said one demonstration organizer, “SB 553 will create a field day for criminals to sue small business owners, giving criminals the double jackpot to steal from the business…and again by suing them in a shakedown lawsuit. All Californians will pay the price for billions of dollars lost to growing retail theft.”

That statement is obviously correct on its very face. The fact the world’s most shoplifted Walgreen’s remains open in San Francisco is some kind of business miracle, and no one can be sure how long it will stay open. A former Westfield mall on that city’s busy Market Street became so vacant of stores because of theft and other business impediments that it was turned back over to the lender, with the lease holder not bothering to wait for foreclosure.

The business owner demonstrators also asked why, when California has more worker safety measures in place than any other state, it needs more new rules.

“(Legislators) should focus on protecting the public and businesses from violent criminals whose only intent is to steal merchandise,” the organizer added. “Let’s not do more to destroy the quality of life in our once-great state.”

But just as police say last year’s SB 357, forbidding arrests for loitering to solicit sex, has created open season for pimps to further exploit sex workers, so SB 553 figures to create an open season for thieves to ransack just about any store they please.

Isn’t it about time legislators stepped back before knee-jerk voting for things that may look like mere do-gooder plans? If they did, they might actually realize their votes have real-world consequences.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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