Gloucester Township believes that a dedicated Retail Patrol Officer can supplement its Drug Court Advocate in battling the root causes of addictions-motivated crime.
By Matt Skoufalos
Setting a new anti-shoplifting initiative against the backdrop of the holiday retail push may seem like conspicuously good timing for the Gloucester Township Police Department.
But in a community that has been stricken by the effects of drug addiction, the new policy could also be viewed as a way to infuse the Christmas season with some Christian spirit.
On Tuesday, the department announced the latest in a series of progressive community policing strategies: its designation of a dedicated Retail Patrol Officer (RPO) to identify shoplifters whose crimes are motivated by addiction.
The lead officer for the program, Det. Anthony Massi, is certified in crisis intervention, and is trained to identify suspects suffering from the effects of mental illness and addiction. Massi’s task will be to increase public safety and prevent thefts in the township business community by limiting the number of repeat offenders chasing their next high.
Hate the sin. Love the sinner.
Gloucester Township Police Chief Harry Earle said the program is an acknowledgment that “arrest alone will not be effective” in deterring criminal behavior.
“The suppression of crime through arrest must be an integral part of our response, but it must not be our only response,” Earle said in a statement.
“We must employ community policing practices and crime prevention actions that involve an intervention component to help those who steal simply to sustain their drug habit.”
The new strategy will especially support the security at the 450,000-square-foot Gloucester Premium Outlets, Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer said. Mayer described the initiative as being “determined to get at the root cause of crime.”
“What we’re saying is that we are approaching a national epidemic in a different fashion,” Mayer said. “We’re getting to the underlying reason why people are shoplifting, and that is to feed their drug addiction. If we can connect those individuals with individuals that can help, then we’re going to make a difference.”
Gloucester Township Police Lt. Brendan Barton said the program is similar to others elsewhere in the country, but may be the first in New Jersey. Gloucester Township already was the first municipality in the state to retain a private drug court advocate, whose task it is to help guide trial defendants into treatment programs. Called Project SAVE, the program has steered an estimated 47 percent of municipal court defendants to private counseling services, Mayer said.
Even violent offenders—those who commit armed or strongarm robbery, and not just shoplifting—can be eligible for the drug court program, Barton said. Drug Court Advocate Casey Johnson will assist Massi in directing alleged shoplifters into treatment.
“Det. Massi’s work does not stop with arrest,” Earle said. “He engages in meaningful conversation with shoplifting offenders…to help them transition from a drug-addiction-fueled life of crime to a path of recovery. “
Gloucester Township Police have handled 145 shoplifting incidents in the first 11 months of 2015, which puts the department on pace for a nearly 30-percent reduction in the crime over year-ago levels, Earle said.
He credited an “assertive approach,” which includes the use of surveillance footage and social media to solve such crimes, with making a difference.
“This will not change,” Earle promised.
Neither, presumably, will many corporate policies that call for the automatic prosecution of shoplifters. Police cannot stop anyone from prosecuting such a crime, Barton said, but he stressed that Massi will continue to cultivate relationships with retailers, store managers, and their employees to educate them about the aims of the new program.
“We want our residents to be happy seeing our officers in the businesses, supporting them, and making the areas safe,” Barton said.
“We also want addicts to know there is help out there, and we want you to get it.”
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