Rampant shoplifting pushes cops to consider substation at Westfield San Francisco Centre 

Rampant shoplifting at Westfield San Francisco Centre is straining police resources and has top brass considering adding a substation at the mall.

Cops respond to San Francisco’s central mall up to three times a day and as many as five times on a Saturday to cite or arrest thieves who tried to flee with loot from the mall’s 170-plus stores, according to the Police Department.

Managers and security personnel at the stores typically only call cops when high-value thefts occur, said Southern Station Capt. Charlie Orkes. A shoplifter who steals $20 worth of merchandise is generally warned not to return, he said.

Still, mall calls take “a lot of time from my officers,” who could be addressing more serious crimes, said Orkes, whose coverage area includes Market Street, Embarcadero and the SoMa district.

To address Westfield Centre shoplifting incidents, top cops are considering adding a police substation at the mall, where an officer can be on hand to respond to incidents. That officer also could implement measures to prevent thefts.

The police department also has suggested handing the power to cite shoplifters directly over to the stores. Interim police Chief Jeff Godown said some department stores in Sacramento can cite shoplifters and even assign them to court.

Godown said he worries that private security companies often have more incentive to bust shoplifters than to prevent shoplifting. The security companies want it to appear they are doing their jobs, he said.

Stores at the mall hire their own security guards to limit shoplifting. The mall’s own security force helps chase down shoplifters running from stores, but Orkes said their main responsibility is to monitor mall areas outside stores.

Store managers at Westfield support the idea of adding a substation, saying that it could lead to quicker police response times.

“It would be awesome,” said a store manager at Abercombie and Fitch, who asked that her name not be used for this story. “The more the merrier.” The manager said her store has its own loss-prevention officers.

However, the time it takes for police officers to respond to calls at the store hasn’t been great, she said.

“Three months ago it was worse; it has gotten a lot better,” she said. “But it’s still an issue.”

Josette Reilly, general manager of the nearby American Eagle, also supports a more permanent police presence at the mall.

Reilly said her store posts employees at every entrance to act as lookouts. “At times it gets a little crazy,” she said.

The problem with shoplifting arises as the cash-strapped SFPD braces for another round of budget cuts. The cuts could strip each station of roughly 10 police patrols. Consequently, the department is looking for ways to operate in a leaner, more efficient fashion.

“For many, many years we’ve been very reactive to dealing with Westfield,” police Cmdr. David Lazar said. “This is a great opportunity to be proactive.”

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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