Coverage of a “shoplifting epidemic” dominated local news coverage this winter, but did broadcast put the crimes in perspective? Well, first, since when did local broadcast put much of anything into perspective — is that even its thing? But as those TV segments filter through Facebook, Reddit, and Nextdoor, any sort of understanding of the crimes was lost in panicked comments and complaints that things sure are worse than they used to be.
Atlantic staff writer and consumerism columnist Amanda Mull took on the apparent crime wave last month, in a piece provocatively headlined “The Great Shoplifting Freak-Out.” However, while she’s skeptical about how the narrative has been presented, saying it “conflates an array of very different offenses into a single crime wave said to be cresting right now, all over the country, in a frenzy of naked avarice and shocking violence,” she also admits that “the deeper you search for real, objective evidence of an accelerating retail crime wave, the more difficult it is to be sure that you know anything at all.”
What follows is a data-driven yet conversationally written piece that could be TL;DRed as “it’s complicated.” Here’s a snip:
Consider “shrink.” That’s the term retailers use to describe inventory losses from any cause—shoplifting, sloppy checkout practices, shipping errors, warehouse mistakes, or simple misplacement—usually expressed as a percentage of total sales. It can be very difficult for stores to determine how any particular piece of inventory was lost, so they are forced to estimate how much different kinds of losses contribute to their bottom line.
In both 2019 and 2020, annual surveys of NRF members pegged the industry’s average overall shrink rate at 1.6 percent—for every $100 in sales, an average of $1.60 in inventory was lost. The NRF’s estimate of how much organized retail crime contributes to shrink is $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales, or $0.07 for every $100. Even by the estimates of groups lobbying lawmakers and the public to take the problem seriously, these types of crimes account for a tiny proportion of overall losses, on average. Paperwork errors and self-checkout machines are both far graver threats to inventory management.
Consider, too, that organized retail crime and organized retail theft do not refer to the same phenomenon, even though they are sometimes used interchangeably. Theft of goods from sales floors is only one part of that seven cents of shrink. Returns fraud, gift-card schemes, and cargo theft are all also significant factors, but they’re rarely discussed in news reports about criminal threats to businesses.
The stories just aren’t as good—there are no terrifying viral videos of people entering Home Depot, picking up a brand new drill, walking it up to customer service, and returning the unbought drill for store credit, which is then sold for half of its cash value on Craigslist.
“The stories just aren’t as good” is an important thing to consider here. Even prior to the pandemic, journalism outlets (and I’m including broadcast news in this categorically, because I am a generous and kind person) have been rapidly shrinking for decades, leading to publications that are understaffed and overworked. Remember, reporting is a job like any other — and when you’re exhausted at work, what are you inclined to pick first, the hard-to-reach stuff at the top of the tree or the lower-hanging fruit?
Add to that general exhaustion the near-overwhelming burden of the coronavirus crisis that we all carry every day, then add to that the time of year we saw these hard-to-substantiate narratives pop up: late November and December, when burnout is at an all-time high, regardless of profession.
Taking those factors into consideration, along with the information Mull has assembled, and it’s quite likely that the crime tales regarding organized retail theft that we’ve been told and sold aren’t as worthy of repetition or confidence as Nextdoor users might believe they are. It will be interesting to see if these types of stories appear again next fall, as election season approaches and candidates attempt to appease voters by presenting themselves as tough on various hot-button types of crimes. — EB
A lot of the stories Best Evidence has been following have had some significant updates these last few days. Some of these folks are rising players in the global true-crime narrative, others are concluding their run. Here’s where things stand with these folks today. — EB
Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani
“Elizabeth Holmes verdict complicates upcoming trial of her ex-boyfriend and former Theranos COO Sunny Balwani,” reads a days-old CNBC headline on the upcoming trial of Elizabeth Holmes’s longtime ally and friend turned alleged abuser. “Just as Holmes tried to throw Balwani under the bus in her trial, expect Balwani to return the favor,” one analyst says, saying that text messages on issues at Theranos might suggest that Holmes sought to hide problems in the lab from Balwani.
But this is all speculation, and the trial isn’t even scheduled to begin until next month. And now, reports The Recorder, it might be delayed even more: U.S. District Judge Edward Davila, who’s gained a low-level fan following after presiding over the Holmes trial, said last week that its February 15 trial date “is just not going to work” given the sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases in the area.
Regional courts all suspended jury trials until January 26 last week, which will put court schedules significantly behind — and that’s assuming that three-week suspension won’t be extended. With doctors in the Bay Area saying that the pandemic is likely to get worse in the coming weeks, as cases contracted during holiday gatherings continue to spread, it could be much longer before we see Balwani in court.
While we’re at it: per the Bay Area News Group, Holmes probably won’t be sentenced until “after Labor Day.” According to the paper, “Federal prosecutors and her defense team have agreed to put off a sentencing hearing until Sept. 12, after the Sept. 5 holiday.” The reason? “Ongoing proceedings in a related matter.”
Court watchers suspect that those proceedings are Balwani’s trial, which is interesting — the delay in sentencing suggests that Holmes might be making a deal of some sort, intel in the case for a reduction in time. Until that fall hearing, she’ll remain free on $500,000 bond, and will “have the bond secured by property,” part of another agreement between her lawyers and the prosecution.
A friend and I were having drinks the other night, and she made a great point: if Cynthia Nixon had been elected Governor of New York, the allegations against Andrew Cuomo might not have been revealed, but we would have been spared this season of Sex and the City. Sliding doors, man!
But in this dimension of the multiverse, Cuomo won’t face criminal charges, it appears. Of the 11 different claims against the disgraced politician, only one made it to (criminal — civil is a whole other ball game) court, a misdemeanor sex charge for “forcible touching.” But prosecutors even dropped that case last week.
Per a statement from Albany District Attorney David Soares, “While many have an opinion regarding the allegations against the former governor, the Albany County DA's Office is the only one who has a burden to prove the elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. While we found the complainant in this case cooperative and credible, after review of all the available evidence, we have concluded that we cannot meet our burden at trial. As such we have notified the Court that we are declining to prosecute this matter and requesting the charges filed by the Albany County Sheriff be dismissed.”
CBS6 reports that in “the virtual court hearing that lasted only ten minutes, Cuomo was seen only for a moment alongside his attorney on a video monitor for about three seconds when the camera panned over.” When asked by the judge, “You said you cannot successfully secure a conviction?” the prosecutor said, “That's right, your honor,” and that was it.
But perhaps there is more news to come. A recent column from Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple had a provocative headline: “Why did the media ignore an allegation against an accuser of Andrew Cuomo?” He starts to answer his own question in his second paragraph, writing that “Charlotte Bennett, whose accusations against the governor last February were followed by a succession of additional complaints, had herself been accused in a 2017 federal lawsuit of having filed a false claim of ‘non-consensual sexual contact’ against a fellow student at Hamilton College.”
What follows doesn’t take many prisoners, with Chris Cuomo allegedly going after Bennett’s history while a Times spokesperson declines to explain why the paper left Bennett’s history out of its reporting on her claims.
The questions Wemple raises pair well with the questions raised over Elizabeth Holmes’s abuse allegations. If we believe a woman is a liar in one case, does that mean nothing she says can be believed? Do we have that same expectation when the accuser, or the victim, is a dude?
The Jinx’s central figure died in a hospital in Stockton, California Monday at age 78, news that shouldn’t surprise anyone who saw his clear frailty during his recent trial. The Times has a very thorough obit that runs you through his improbable life, writing that Durst had been “serving a life sentence at the California Health Care Facility” when he was taken to the hospital for tests, where he “went into cardiac arrest and could not be revived.”
I told Sarah that I expected some think pieces on Durst to come out after his death, but I think I miscalculated: I think most meaty and thoughtful reporting on Durst went out around the time of his trial. The most interesting thing I saw after his passing was this NBC report headlined “Robert Durst is dead at 78. The convicted killer and I shared a doctor, and I'm glad,” which, yes, clickable as hell. “My nephrologist was willing and able to look beyond the horror of Durst’s crimes,” Kelly Hartog writes, “and do what he saw as his duty.”
Living as near as I do to the hospital that serves critically ill San Quentin inmates, this isn’t as much of a yowza as it might be to Hartog: A nurse who cared for Richard Ramirez shops at my co-op (she once told me Ramirez and actor David Strathairn were cared for in hospital rooms just steps apart, which I think about all the time), and if my choices are dealing with the health concerns of Durst or the Night Stalker, I’ll pick the sandwich fan.
As long as I’m being cranky, why is Durst attorney Chip Lewis telling the NY Post that “There will be a posthumous acquittal,” suggesting that he’s still working on an appeal? Who is paying Lewis to do this? I see the need for this in cases where justice has been badly miscarried, but is that this case? I am not so sure about that.
Update 9:38 AM: BE commenter Elizabeth Hughes chimed in with this important clarification, reming me of CA laws I had totally spaced on:
Per Durst’s posthumous acquittal: in line with California law, any convicted person who dies before final judgment in their case is cleared of all charges. Because his case was in the appeals phase, Durst gets a clean slate for checking out before final judgement. Yes, I know. There is no justice here for his victims, but that’s the law (which I heard on NPR, so @ them, not me).
In any case, I’ll tell you this: every time I embed that final Jinx video, I have to watch it. It is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing and chilling moments in present day true crime content, up there with…my god, I don’t even know? A once in a lifetime bit of footage. — EB
Monday on Best Evidence: Sarah and I are honoring the national Martin Luther King day of service on Monday, but Tuesday I will have a lengthy complaint about Netflix’s Crime Scene series. Buckle in!