The NYPD in the Bronx has quietly begun working more closely with small businesses as it grapples with a shoplifting epidemic — and local supermarket owners say the early signs look promising.
In a throwback strategy, police officers in the Bronx’s 46th Precinct last month began handing out their personal phone numbers to local business owners — a stark contrast to the past several years, during which shopkeepers gripe they’ve given up on dialing 911 over a lack of response.
At the same time, NYPD detectives at the precinct also have set up new WhatsApp chat group where retailers can upload photos and videos of shoplifters swiping merchandise in real time, according to store owners.
While the pilot is only weeks old, Bronx business owners say that having direct access to officers has already resulted in arrests.
“One of my colleagues caught a guy shoplifting and instead of calling 911 he called the crime prevention team and they were there in five minutes,” said grocer Eddie Vargas, who operates a Pioneer supermarket in the Bronx in addition to other Big Apple locations.
Carlos Collado, who owns two Fine Fare stores in the Bronx and Harlem, said the WhatsApp chats are especially helpful for logging repeat offenders for NYPD’s crime prevention team.
“The idea is to aggregate these crimes [so we know] when someone has exceeded the misdemeanor threshold,” Collado said, adding, “We saw the fastest response ever.”
The month-old Bronx initiative comes as robberies are up 5% citywide for the first three weeks of 2024, NYPD data show. Last week, meanwhile, the City Council rejected Mayor Eric Adams’ veto of the controversial How Many Stops Act, which will require NYPD cops to file paperwork on everyone they question — making it even tougher for cops to do their jobs, critics say.
The 46th precinct, which covers the Fordham and Morris Heights neighborhoods, did not return calls for comment. An NYPD spokesperson said the public should call 911 to report a crime.
“NYPD officers, including those assigned as Crime Prevention Officers, routinely offer their business cards to community members and business owners to enhance the relationship between officers and the communities they serve,” a spokesperson for the NYPD said in a statement.
“While business cards provide a direct line to officers, the public is reminded to dial 911 in the event of an emergency, such as a crime in progress,” the NYPD spokesperson added.
NYPD did not specifically respond to questions from The Post about the WhatsApp initiative.
The fledgling Bronx program was sparked by a chance dustup on Dec. 30 that ended up with a supermarket employee getting arrested for assaulting an alleged shoplifter — a topsy-turvy incident that shopkeepers said inspired them to approach the brass at the 46th Precinct.
“We are the victims and now we are criminalized,” one local supermarket owner vented following the arrest.
In response, local retailers on Jan. 5 visited the offices of the 46th Precinct and aired their gripes with NYPD Inspector Jeremy Scheublin and his staff for more than an hour, according to one store owner who attended.
Scheublin, the commanding officer of the 46th precinct, “understood our frustration about not seeing any results after calling 911 and the system not considering [retail crime] a priority,” according to supermarket owner, Carlos Collado, who attended the meeting.
Buoyed by early success, some local retailers say they’re already pushing to make the new strategies a broader effort by the city to address out of control shoplifting.
“We are trying to visit every precinct in the city to make them aware of this program,” said Vargas, who is a member of the Collective Action to Protect our Stores or CAPS, a year-old political coalition.
CAPS previously has called on legislators to address the fact that thieves are not typically prosecuted or arrested for stealing less than $1,000 worth of goods. The group is demanding that serial shoplifters who cumulatively steal more than that will be charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
Many retailers say they have stopped calling the police — except for violent incidents — and invested instead in security guards, anti-theft technology, including controversial facial recognition software.
“Calling 911 is not always effective,” said Nelson Eusebio, president of the National Supermarket Association, who was among those at the meeting. “We need our precincts to be more hands on.”
Recently, NYPD has said it has begun encouraging retailers to report crimes – and that its efforts resulted in a 40% increase last year in the number of store reported crimes.
Michael Lipetri, chief of the of the Office of Crime Control Strategies, also flagged efforts by NYPD to “identify corridors where we see very dense shoplifting” and to “saturate” those areas with “foot patrols.”
“Our response rates are the best they’ve ever been but I will tell you that we have a lot of work to do to continue to suppress shoplifting in New York City,” LiPetri added.
The Dec. 30 incident that helped spark the Bronx initiative arose from an altercation between a store manager and a known shoplifter at a Pioneer supermarket on Featherbed Lane in Morris Heights, according to Vargas, the store’s owner.
“He was eating dinner outside the store and threw his spare ribs at my manager who threw it back at him,” Vargas said of the alleged shoplifter.
An NYPD spokesperson said the manager was arrested because he “pushed the victim and punched him in the head causing minor injuries,” according to a statement.
Vargas, however, claimed there was no evidence that the manager punched the alleged shoplifter, who reported the incident to the police, according to an NYPD statement.
The shoplifter’s charges have been dropped, Vargas said, as the alleged shoplifter never showed up to press charges.
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