Two menacing thieves, four oversized backpacks — and zero worries, evidently, that this will end badly for them. This is what liquor theft in Toronto looks like today.
On a recent Saturday afternoon at a busy east-end LCBO, a brazen, broad-daylight heist begins. Two twentysomething men, faces shrouded beneath hoodies, hats and sunglasses, push their way through a crowd of customers to an aisle of premium vodka and proceed to strip the shelves bare.
Clink, clink, clink go the bottles as the loot bags swell. And then, smash — a $75 bottle of Grey Goose slips sideways and shatters upon the floor in their frenzy to get the job done. One of the bandits shouts a warning, “Stay the f- away from us.” The pilfering continues.
The customers — some 40 eyewitnesses, including a Toronto Star reporter — are frozen in place, stunned by the close-up glimpse of high-volume larceny.
The staff — three on the checkouts, two more elsewhere in the store — are the only ones not watching. They’ve seen it before. Over and over. Now they avert their morale-battered eyes.
Tension rises as the thieves stumble toward the exit, each burdened by something close to their body weight in the people’s booze. So heavy is the bounty that as they pass within arm’s reach, even a slight nudge might send them tumbling, putting a stop to it. But then what? Already, the floor is littered with broken glass. Every single item in this store is a potential weapon for someone who wants badly enough not to get caught.
Nobody makes a move.
It all lasts barely three minutes. Outside, a stunned group of volunteer fundraisers with the nearby Crescent Town Swimming Club witnesses the final scene, as the bandits make their slow-motion escape west along the Danforth, toward Victoria Park Ave.
“They aren’t even running,” says one of the swim volunteers. “They’re literally just walking away.” The loot — at least $2,000 worth of premium liquor in this one instance — came straight out of your pocket, Ontario.
Inside the store, as the tension eases and business resumes, a clerk winces when asked whether he’d ever seen anything like it. “Every single day,” he fires back in frustration. “Sometimes twice a day.”
Is it really as frequent as that? The Star went looking for answers, and in a word, yes.
The sobering numbers look like this: more than 9,000 thefts at LCBO outlets in Toronto in the past four-and-a-half years (Jan. 1, 2014 to June 26, 2018), according to a crunching of Toronto Police Service data obtained by the Star.
That makes the Liquor Control Board of Ontario far and away the most targeted retail entity in the city. And though retailers as a whole have reported a major spike in shoplifting incidents in the city — 11,010 thefts in 2014, versus 16,667 in the first 10 months of 2018 — the spike in liquor theft appears to be the single biggest driver.
The LCBO declined a request for an interview on the Star’s findings. Instead, the provincially owned liquor retailer responded in writing to a summary of the troubling data, acknowledging, “We can confirm that the LCBO is seeing an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”
No single explanation unpacks the whole of the LCBO’s theft problem. And it is far from a Toronto-only phenomenon. Twitter is littered and Facebook is festooned with both Crime Stopper-style alerts from police and customer eyewitness accounts that reference thefts throughout Ontario.
But LCBO theft stings especially deep in Toronto, where some suggest overlapping policies — the LCBO’s “hands-off” instruction to staff never to intervene with thieves while they are in the building, coupled with the Toronto Police Service’s policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene after the thieves have left — has opened a pathway to friction-free larceny.
“The LCBO doesn’t want their staff getting into tussles with thieves inside the store, and I understand that,” said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.
“But when you couple that with a policing decision that says we just don’t have the resources to respond unless the thief is on the scene, you lose a lot of the deterrent.
“That’s where we are right now and it’s rampant, like a butterfly effect of unintended consequences. I’m hearing from LCBO people directly that they’ve seen guys come in and fill up duffle bags and walk right out the door and when they call 911, if these guys are not on the scene nobody is going to respond.”
What do actual LCBO workers say? One clue arrived recently at the Star’s doorstep — a typewritten, snail-mailed, anonymous plea for help purporting to be from a frontline liquor store staffer.
“What the public doesn’t know is the amount of theft that goes on and how our lives are in jeopardy because of it. Every day we lose thousands of dollars to theft and we can’t do anything about it,” the letter said.
“We have been threatened with knives, needles, guns, physical harm, we’ve been shoved into fixtures, our lives threatened to where they will wait for us after shift, and yet the public doesn’t know as it’s kept quiet from the media.
“We are all fearful that something will happen to one of us and it’s scary. THE LCBO DOESN’T CARE. They barely support us and we barely see security once a month if we are lucky enough to have them in our store for a full shift.”
The Star has no way to independently authenticate the letter, which ended with “name withheld due to fear of retaliation.” But upon hearing its message, OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas, who represents LCBO’s unionized staff, responded: “That really disturbs me — but that is the mood of the workers and it captures it very well.
“I think most of the managers do care — but they feel as hamstrung as the front-line workers feel. They are telling us that theft has increased substantially in the past year especially. Verbal abuse is common, and while violence itself is rare, the threat of violence is there.”
OPSEU followed up with additional comment, noting that meetings between the union and LCBO to address surging theft are occurring “at various levels.
“We continue to advocate for greater security measures and do see improved measures of which our staff have been able to suggest,” OPSEU wrote. “Unfortunately, it seems the act of shoplifting has turned into a larger-scale enterprise as thieves are stealing higher-end products and larger bottles.”
Likewise, in response to a list of questions from the Star, an LCBO spokesperson sent a statement citing a series of measures it has taken to curb theft while maintaining a safety-first posture.
“Safe stores and the safety of our employees are our top priorities and the policies and procedures we have in place reflect that. The LCBO has taken appropriate steps to prevent shop theft through security investments and theft protection tactics. We have increased our guarding and investigator expenditures, as well as CCTV technology, in-store deterrents, and always collaborate with local police on active investigations,” the statement said.
“As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place. Instead, the LCBO ensures employees are given shop-theft procedures and critical training.”
Stephen O’Keefe, an Ontario-based retail loss consultant, said that the LCBO is not alone in experiencing a theft surge. Companies across the Canadian retail spectrum, he said, are reporting rising rates of “shrinkage.”
Yet with no new studies of the issue since 2014, Canadian retailers have relied upon U.S. data to get a handle on the increase. O’Keefe’s company, Bottom Line Matters, is in the process of launching new research to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what’s behind the spike.
One factor, he suspects, is that with Canadian retailers now in a race to allocate resources to digital commerce, many companies simply can’t afford to obsess on the bricks-and-mortar reality with the intensity they once did. “This, unfortunately, means that the risk appetite for shrinkage due to theft has grown, and loss-prevention resources have been strained,” he told the Star.
The spike in liquor theft, if especially acute in Toronto, has also triggered a rash of headlines recently in Manitoba, where officials cite the opioid crisis as a factor driving increasingly brazen, violent and frequent heists. One stopgap solution being tried in Winnipeg that has yet to take hold in Ontario is the outright removal of premium liquors from display shelves.
Instead, expensive vodkas and the like are kept in a more secure space out of public view, and retrieved upon request to customers one bottle at a time, in a bid to strip the “lowest-hanging fruit” from temptation, a spokesperson for the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union told the Star.
In April 2018, Toronto police sent a letter to the security sections of the LCBO, said police spokesperson Meaghan Gray. The letter indicated that unless there is a public safety risk, certain crimes could now be reported online.
“Calls that require an immediate police presence would still be responded to,” Grey said. “The online reporting allows the security personnel at the LCBO to enter the information for investigation by TPS. This is one of many initiatives the Service is undertaking through its modernization process of ensuring we are where the public needs us the most.”
At least one Toronto police jurisdiction, meanwhile, is trying something else. The Community Response Unit at 14 Division, in response to a rash of public complaints, last month launched a multifaceted pilot project that includes circulating plainclothes officers at several LCBOs in the area.
“I can’t speak to all of Toronto, but in our patch we’re trying hard to find a new way to deal with the LCBO theft problem,” said Sgt. Nelson Barreira, who is leading the effort.
“I don’t want to give too much detail but we’re raising our presence. We’re averaging about one arrest a day involving LCBO theft. Basically we’re seeing two types of theft — on one hand you see brazen repeat offenders coming in pretty much daily and taking a single bottle and those cases usually involve addiction issues, either alcohol or drugs and sometimes mental health issues,” said Barreira.
“And then we see the big-bag approach — large quantities are being taken and resold at a discount. Our team is predominantly on bicycle but we mobilize a police car for this project to transport suspects. The approach is intelligence-led policing, acting on what the community shares with us as smartly as we can.”
Do you have any stories of LCBO shoplifiting to share? Write Mitch Potter email@example.com or share stories on Twitter with the hashtag #LCBOtheft
On Dec. 19, Barreira’s team led a bust of two people involved in an alleged 12-person shoplifting ring that targeted Toronto LCBOs. Police estimate the value of goods stolen by the group at over $200,000.
One point of agreement for the LCBO and everyone else: whatever else you might say about liquor theft, the cameras never lie. In the store on the Danforth the day the Star bore witness to a four-backpack heist, 13 ceiling-mounted cameras caught it all.
Sgt. Barreira of 14 Division emphasizes those high-quality images “never blink and they are there forever — and once retrieved, the LCBO screenshots circulate to every officer in the division, often forming the basis for future arrests.
“In the short term they get away with the bottle,” he said. “But in the longer term, because every theft is captured on video, the chances are good they are not gonna get away with it.”
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites
Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data reporter. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org