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Columbia Spectator Staff

With a decrease in murders, robberies, and assaults, Morningside Heights can boast safer streets and fewer criminals—that is, except for one crime. Shoplifting and larceny, locally and nationwide, have significantly increased with the economic decline, and many New Yorkers with otherwise spotless records are choosing to fill their empty pockets with stolen goods. According to the CompStat report for the New York Police Department's 26th precinct—bound by the Hudson River and Henry Hudson Parkway—there has been a 9.9 percent increase in reported crimes of grand larceny from 2008 to 2009 to date. Meanwhile, the rate of every other crime within this precinct has decreased. According to James Harper, community affairs officer of the 26th precinct, reports of grand larceny mostly reflect cases of stolen personal property left unattended. In his eight-and-a-half years at the precinct, Harper said the trends of shoplifting seem to be fairly constant. "It is the same people committing the same crimes," Harper said of shoplifting in Morningside Heights. He added that the NYPD consequences for shoplifters are "not enough to deter them from committing the crime again." Harper finds within the precinct, organizations nationwide and locally have reported noticeable increases in retail arrests and vendor charges, as well as a rise in those criminals requiring prevention programs. According to Barbara Staib, director of Communications for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, her organization has seen a 9-percent increase in referrals to date in 2009, following a 23-percent increase from 2007 to 2008. She noted that current economic woes have likely encouraged first time offenders. "The people on the fence, if given the right circumstances or ability to rationalize their behavior will try their hand in shoplifting," she said. Breenzy Fernandez, program director of Stoplift—a New York shoplifting prevention organization within the Education and Assistance Corporation, echoed Staib's observations. "People have lost their jobs and are under a lot of psychological distress," Fernandez said. "People don't have the means to purchase something, and this is their outlet, their answer." Along with these reported increases in shoplifting prevention referrals, local defense lawyers said that more petty larceny offenders are seeking representation. "In the past you get more of a kid who's just swiping something from the store," said Michael Berardino, a former prosecutor and now a New York criminal defense practitioner. "Now individuals do have financial pressures and stresses on them." Berardino said that struggling businesses were also pursuing charges much more in recent months, a factor he said has greatly contributed to increased demand for shoplifter representation at his firm. He added that the offenders seeking defense are younger, with many just out of school and now jobless. Experts agreed that the new offenders include not only the poor, but also the frustrated middle class. "People are looking to cut corners," said Paul Jones, vice president of Asset Protection of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. "When people get mad and frustrated they tend to justify their actions." Jones said that this "epidemic" includes a lot of economically stable people who are being driven toward greed. "This is reasonable people making dumb decisions," he said. Fernandez of Stoplift agreed, saying that the motives of new offenders refereed to her program were not purely financial. "For some, it is more of a want than a need." Many local store owners in Morningside Heights agreed that no matter the cause or incentive, shoplifters are appearing in greater numbers. "There has definitely been an increase," Devon Jones, loss-prevention officer of American Apparel on 110th Street, said. "The spectrum has gotten wider. People with money come in here looking for a break any way they can get it." He said that recently, many customers have bought several items, but have attempted to walk away with a few extra unpaid. "We are the only clothing store around here. We are a target," Jones said, adding that recently his "duties have really expanded." Peter Soter, owner of Morningside Bookshop on 114th Street, said that in response to increased shoplifters he has widened his aisles, added a big mirror, and placed hardcover books in visible sight. "I've caught a few more people recently," Soter said, referring to a woman who attempted to leave with a pile of Penguin Books in her bag last week. "Last month, there was really quite a wave of it," said Fred Lazorcak, an employee at Liberty House, a hand-made clothing store on 113th Street. Lazorcak added that the store has recently had a lot of trouble with the same criminals re-entering their store, forcing them to ultimately ban entry to specific local offenders. Jones from American Apparel noted that his store reports every single case to the police, but Soter and Lazorcak said they do not always involve the local precincts if it is not necessary. Raja Singh, an employee at Famous Deli on 108th Street, said that despite a lot of attempted shoplifts, none under his watch were successful. "It happens every day twice a day. But we don't ever have to go to the police."

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