Thursday, September 12, 2013

Crime Watch: Downtown shops ‘under siege’ from thefts

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Two prominent Commercial Street retailers are installing video-surveillance and other security equipment in the wake of a summer marred by thefts.
Late last month, both Motifs and Old Port Wine Merchants and Cigar Shop stepped up security, and are trying to get help combating crime in the high-pedestrian-traffic area around their shops.
Motifs owner Paula Jalbert says crime “has gotten aggressive this summer, very aggressive,” well beyond “normal run-of-the-mill shoplifting.” Thieves are “more organized, and it seems to be groups”
operating together.
“On July 5 my petty cash bag was stolen right out from under us,” she says, among other thefts of money and easily marketable items. “They’re looking for purses, wallets, cell phones, iPads, computers.”
The thieves are “older — they’re not young kids,” Jalbert says.
Earlier this summer, a woman selling jewelry from a sidewalk table set up to cater to cruise-ship visitors was found to not have made the pieces herself but stolen them from Motifs and at least one other Old Port shop.  When confronted while brazenly selling them in the open air just down the street from where the items had been taken, the woman packed hurriedly and left the area; she hasn’t been back, Jalbert says.
So in August, she stepped up security, or, as she puts it, “I’ve gone on lockdown.”
“Now I have security cameras and they record video;” she has added a keycode lock to her office door, and all the shop’s clothes have security tags on them, too. She says the preventive steps have resulted in a significant dropoff in thefts.
Next door at Old Port Wine, owner Jacques deVillier has also stepped up security, a move he lamented in an email to customers.
He lost several hundred dollars’ worth of wine a few weeks back, and earlier in the summer police caught a well-dressed middle-aged man with a bag full of stolen cigars from his shop.
“This street is rampant,” deVillier says. Now he has four cameras feeding live video to monitors at the cash register, as well as recording footage for later review if needed.
It’s not a move he made willingly. “With much trepidation I have wrestled with the decision to install video cameras,” deVillier wrote in an August 26 email. “I have put off doing this because I think of this store as not just a wine shop but a place where all of my friends can congregate. Placing cameras seemed to be a matter of distrust and not the message I’ve received over the last seven years in Portland or the message I wanted to communicate to my friends. I love being here and I had hoped with Portland’s growth things could remain the same; things do change unfortunately, and not always for the better.”
Both shop owners say police and city officials need to do more, though Steve Hewins, interim executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, a nonprofit comprised of businesses in the city center, says he didn’t hear anything about the topic at his group’s August membership meeting.
“We’ve got great police, but how much can they do?” deVillier says.
Jalbert, who has owned retail stores in the Old Port since she opened Communiques in 1981, says she feels “like we’ve been under siege.”
She says police officers on patrol now “make a point of walking through every store” — but that only started about three weeks ago, after offices upstairs in Jalbert’s building were hit by thieves. She says officers blame the uptick in thefts on drug users, telling her illegal “drugs are on the rise in the Portland area.”
Portland Police Department spokesman Lieutenant James Sweatt says some thefts — such as those of electronics or other easily resellable items — could be connected to the drug trade, but others — of merchandise, for example — may be because a person actually wants the item stolen.
He says, though, that “there hasn’t been a significant change whatsoever” in the number of thefts reported citywide this year, compared to 2011 and 2012. He doesn’t have data broken down by region within the city, but “we’re not seeing a trending pattern here” at the police department. Sweatt did say that “businesses that do a little bit better job at security . . . are less likely to be targeted.”