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Shoplifting cases in Missoula have nearly doubled since 2020

MISSOULA — Stolen merchandise can be a costly problem for a business owner, and shoplifting is becoming increasingly common in Missoula.

In Missoula, shoplifting has nearly doubled in the past four years, so business owners are trying to work with the city and county to find solutions to mitigate some of the negative impacts.

The Montana Board of Crime Control collects data from the Missoula County Sheriff's Office and the Missoula Police Department on various reported property crimes, including theft from a motor vehicle, theft from a building, and shoplifting.

The numbers include data from both the city of Missoula and Missoula County, but most shoplifting occurs within city limits, said Missoula County Attorney Matt Jennings.

Current data from the Board of Crime Control shows that there were 600 reports of shoplifting in Missoula in 2020, and 1,185 reports in 2023.

The Board of Crime Control says the 2023 figures are likely underestimated because they have not been updated beyond November.

Jennings said the increase could be due to changes in policies for shoplifting charges.

Any shoplifting totaling less than $1,500 is a misdemeanor, usually punishable by a fine.

The Montana state legislature has eliminated prison time for misdemeanors and the city of Missoula has eliminated the possibility of parole for misdemeanors in the wake of COVID-19.

“And so we have a lot of repeat offenders, people who commit dozens and dozens of thefts in a matter of years, but the thefts are not allowed to be punished as crimes as long as the thefts are under $1,500,” Jennings says.

The maximum limit for grand theft is set at the state level, so in most shoplifting cases the Missoula County District Attorney's Office has no choice but to impose a fine.

A charge of petty theft does not result in a prison sentence, regardless of whether it is the third, fifth or twentieth offense.

Claire Peterson

Bretz RV & Marine is one of many businesses in Missoula fighting shoplifting and theft.

Jennings says without the ability to charge an offender with a serious crime, there is insufficient incentive for the person to stop committing crimes.

“We need to make sure we hold them accountable and use all the tools at our disposal to stop this behavior. At the same time, we need to address the underlying issues that lead to this criminal behavior,” he says.

When convicted of a serious crime, the county has many more resources available to support and punish the person who commits a crime. For example, a person charged with grand theft might be eligible for mandatory drug and alcohol counseling or probation.

“So there are cases where a crime can actually be to the benefit of society and the perpetrators because we can hold them accountable, but also give them more resources,” Jennings said.

While there has been a significant increase in property crime in Missoula, Jennings said the majority of crimes are committed by a small group of individuals.

For long-established businesses, the changes in Missoula are easy to notice.

Brandon Bretz took over his grandparents' business, Bretz RV & Marine, which had been in existence since 1967. The location on Grant Creek Road in Missoula was built in 1999.

“For the first 20 years we were here, we had very few problems with theft or vandalism,” says Bretz. “In the last four years, we've seen a huge increase in the number of holes in the fence and trailers stolen and damaged. In fact, in the last couple of years, three trailers have been stolen completely from the property.”

For Bretz, the increase in thefts had a negative impact on his business, as he lost thousands of dollars not only in lost merchandise but also in insurance costs.

“Multiple thefts are not a viable way for insurance to cover the costs of this problem,” he says.

BRANDON BRETZ.jpg

Claire Peterson

Brandon Bretz, CEO of Bretz RV & Marine, has noticed a sharp increase in thefts at his company over the past four years.

Due to concerns raised by numerous businesses such as Bretz RV & Marine, Missoula Chamber of Commerce President Mark Losh decided to host a panel discussion on property crime.

The roundtable gave companies the opportunity to share their stories and ask questions to the Missoula District Attorney's Office and the Missoula Police Department.

“The whole focus was that you can tell us what's going on, but we should work on a solution. There's no point in complaining if you don't offer a solution,” Losh says. “If we can educate the companies about the laws and the rules, that will help the police and the sheriffs – and the courts – to then ensure justice.”

The Missoula Chamber of Commerce plans to host another discussion on property crime in July.

Losh hopes to use the information gathered at the events to coordinate with other chambers of commerce in the state and put pressure on lawmakers to make changes.

MARK LOSH.jpg

Claire Peterson

Mark Losh, president of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, received an increasing number of complaints from businesses about shoplifting and decided to hold a roundtable discussion on property crime in early May.

For Jennings, any solution should target the root of the problem.

“We can show compassion knowing that there are some people out there who are desperate and make mistakes. We need to hold them accountable for those mistakes, but we also need to figure out how to put them in a better position so it doesn't happen again,” he says. “Punishment alone won't necessarily stop people from committing the next crime, but social services alone won't give them any indication that this behavior isn't OK.”

At the roundtable event, companies learned more about the current law enforcement system and how they can support the police.

For example, it is important that the victim of a crime – often the company owner or employee – remains involved in the investigation.

If the company is not represented during the trial and sentencing, the convicted person is more likely to receive a lighter sentence, according to Jennings.

Another option for businesses is to label a repeat thief as a “trespasser.” This can be done by the business taking the person's name and making it clear that they are not allowed to enter the store again, having the police on the scene and telling the person they are not allowed to enter the store again, or having the person charged with a misdemeanor and the judge telling them they are not allowed to enter the store again.

If a person is deemed to be “trespassing” and attempts to steal from or assault someone in the store again, they can be arrested for burglary, which is a serious crime.

According to Jennings, burglary is only used in cases of very serious shoplifting and should not be used in every case.

There is not much companies can do to prevent theft. If they call the police, no one will be arrested if the value of the stolen goods is less than $1,500.

Larger companies like Walmart or Scheels may have the option of private security, but smaller retail stores in Missoula often require an employee to attempt to stop a shoplifter.

“It puts the salesperson, the field staff and the store staff in a very compromising and dangerous position and it puts a huge strain on the company to retain staff,” says Losh. “I mean, if someone works in a store where this problem is constantly occurring, they feel unsafe and don't want to stay. So for the employer, it's not just a staffing issue, it's an inventory issue.”

Overall, there won't be a quick fix to Missoula's rising property crime problem, but Jennings believes creating more opportunities for capital crimes or providing more resources for misdemeanors is a good start.

“I think we already have a lot of tools at our disposal, but maybe we’re not using them effectively right now,” Jennings says.

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