Why California Democrats are divided on retail theft bill

Local business owners rally for improved public safety in Oakland on Sept. 26, 2023. (Photo by Loren Elliott for CalMatters)

Legislators may be off for spring recess, but debates about their bills are still happening outside committee rooms. One spicy intra-party exchange between Democratic Assemblymembers focuses on a measure about retail theft — underscoring the difficult balance for lawmakers responding to public concerns about crime, while not over-policing historically targeted communities.

Los Angeles Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, vice chairperson of the Legislative Progressive Caucus, introduced Assembly Bill 1990, which would allow police officers to make warrantless arrests for misdemeanor shoplifting offenses (as in, items that total $950 or less) if officers have probable cause. Officers do not need to be present when the crime occurred. 

Warrantless arrests when police don’t witness the crime aren’t new — officers can already arrest people on misdemeanor charges for domestic violence, violating a restraining order or for carrying a concealed gun at an airport.

The bill has bipartisan support with the backing of Assemblymember Juan Alanis, a Republican from Modesto and vice chairperson of the Public Safety Committee. In a statement, Carrillo said that by “increasing enforcement against suspected shoplifters, we are sending a clear message: we will not tolerate these acts that threaten our public safety and economic vitality.” 

Investigators located stolen merchandise from numerous retailers, including TJ Max, Ross, Marshall’s, Dicks Sporting Goods, Kohls, and Macy’s in Stockton on Oct. 26, 2023. The stolen merchandise was estimated to have retail value of approximately 1 million dollars. (CHP via Bay City News)

But Inglewood Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, a fellow progressive caucus member, urged lawmakers to reject the bill, saying on social media that it was “bad for black and brown folks.” 

In an emailed statement, McKinnor told CalMatters that AB 1990 is unnecessary and will promote mass incarceration: “We need our law enforcement partners to enforce the laws on the books, not discourage retailers from asking for help.”

A 2019 report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that African Americans in nearly all California counties have higher arrest rates than whites, and that misdemeanors have increased as a share of all arrests. (Latinos, however, were arrested at lower rates than whites in 26 out of the 58 counties.)

Carrillo pushed back, however, arguing that her bill “is committed to fairness, equity, and the protection of all individuals’ rights, regardless of race or background.” 

In an email to CalMatters, Carrillo also said that McKinnor hasn’t met with her to talk about the measure, and that while she is “always open” to discuss policy with colleagues, “I don’t legislate via social media.” 

Gardena Assemblymember Mike Gipson, who is one of the bill’s co-authors, also stood by Carrillo, arguing that “communities of color are hurting” because of retail theft and job loss. Gipson also posed a question to his (unspecified) colleague on social media: “What do you offer besides throwing rocks? What do you offer, I ask, as any form of a solution to a statewide problem?”

The debate is emblematic of the tightrope progressive lawmakers attempt to walk on public safety. And it’s an issue that Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, chairperson of the Public Safety Committee, will have to navigate as Carrillo’s bill heads to the committee. 

While McCarty’s office said he was not available for comment today, he spoke with CalMatters earlier this month about his approach to retail theft. The Sacramento Democrat said that lawmakers are “at the forefront” to address the issue, and that he aims to have a “balanced response” that does not “overcorrect” with unintended consequences.

McCarty, Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas and Assemblymember Rick Zbur, chairperson of a select committee appointed by Rivas, have their own retail theft legislation.

The potential to “overcorrect” is particularly pertinent with retail theft, as the severity of a perceived crime wave remains up for debate (or as the Brookings Institution put it, “greatly exaggerated.”)

According to another Public Policy Institute of California study, shoplifting rates in California remained 8% below pre-pandemic levels in 2022. Last September, a handful of media outlets poked holes in Target’s rationale to close some of its locations due to crime. And in December, the National Retail Federation had to walk back its claim that half of the $94.5 billion merchandise loss the industry experienced in 2021 was due to organized retail theft (experts put the figure closer to 5%). 

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