As thefts in Manhattan stores have exploded in recent years, there is new concern among police that shoplifters who display a weapon may be treated less severely than they should, under a policy announced by newly elected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg Jr.
The crime of shoplifting in New York City has soared in recent years, reaching the highest levels on record in 2021, according NYPD statistics obtained by Newsday.
Manhattan had 19,702 shoplifting incidents in 2021, an increase of 36% over the prior year, the most ever recorded since police began keeping records in 1995, the data showed.
There has also been a steady increase in cases in which a weapon was used: 711 times in 2021 compared with 577 in 2020, statistics show.
Police and law enforcement experts are now alarmed that Bragg’s policy, announced last week, could mean cases that escalate into a commercial robbery because a weapon is displayed may not be charged as a serious felony but instead are downgraded to a misdemeanor.
Bragg’s Monday memo said "An act that could be charged" as armed robbery "in a commercial setting" should be downgraded to a misdemeanor larceny "if the force or threat of force consists of displaying a dangerous instrument or similar behavior but does not create a genuine risk of physical harm."
Some police officials fear Bragg’s policy directive could lead to an escalation of armed store thefts and shoplifting by his introducing more permissive language not recognized under state law.
"A gun point robbery is a gun-point robbery — it should be immaterial to a victim (be it a store owner, minimum wage employee or a member of the public] that it happened in a commercial establishment as opposed to on the street, and the assailant should face the full consequences of the law," NYPD commissioner Keechant Sewell said last week in message to cops. "Every time one of you makes an arrest of an armed individual the risk to your safety is increased significantly,"
On Saturday at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Bragg clarified his policy, promising that anyone who holds up a store with a firearm will be prosecuted for a felony.
"If you go into a store in Manhattan with a gun, to rob that store, that is armed robbery, that is serious and you will be prosecuted for armed robbery in Manhattan," Bragg said to applause.
Richard Fife, senior adviser to Bragg, said Monday the memo was intended to guide prosecutors in cases where repeat offenders, driven by problems like addiction, could be rehabilitated and kept out of jail.
Display of any weapon in a robbery will be seriously prosecuted, said Fife.
But critics said that Bragg’s actual directive doesn’t make an exception for use of a firearm and adds the undefined elements of "genuine risk of physical harm" which is not found in the state law.
"Part of his problem is he is trying to rewrite the penal law," said former NYPD detective sergeant Joseph Giacalone, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.