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London Drugs president Clint Mahlman says the company has no plans to close stores due to escalating violence and theft, though the issue has reached a 'crisis point' for Canadian retailers.Nono Shen/The Canadian Press

Some of B.C.’s retail giants have formed a new coalition to press all levels of government to do more to stop the rampant shoplifting they say is a threat to their bottom lines and their employees’ safety.

Clint Mahlman, president and chief operating officer of the Western Canadian pharmacy chain London Drugs, told a news conference in Vancouver on Monday the Save Our Streets group is aimed at raising the alarm at the “epidemic proportions” of violence, vandalism and theft.

Mr. Mahlman, who was accompanied by 16 others including business owners and the regional representative for the CrimeStoppers charity, said federal crime data show thefts of goods from store shelves spiked 30 per cent last year.

“We need all levels of government to work together in a co-ordinated way that prevents crime from happening in the first place, that, when crime happens, there’s accountability for those crimes and so that people feel protected and that those who chronically commit crimes can’t come and continue to do it seemingly unfettered or without consequence,” Mr. Mahlman said.

The group also includes representatives from fashion retailers Lululemon and Artizia and the Save-On Foods grocery conglomerate.

Mr. Mahlman could not provide data on assaults on his staff, but a London Drugs representative told two experts contracted by the province last year that in 2017, there were 24 cases of assaults on staff and that this number grew to 99 in 2019. Over one month last year, according to the experts’ report into chronic violent offenders, the representative from London Drugs said there had been 56 cases at their stores involving violence.

“I’ve often said that if this was happening to MPs, judges, Crown prosecutors that someone was coming in defecating in their office, stealing stuff, stabbing their staff, threatening them with needles, things would have changed by now,” Mr. Mahlman said.

The Save Our Streets group estimated added security is also costing its members millions.

Vancouver police said last week that officers made 258 arrests and recovered almost $57,000 in stolen goods in a 16-day shoplifting crackdown in September. After a similar crackdown in the spring, the VPD said it had arrested 217 shoplifters and recommended 278 criminal charges to Crown counsel. On Monday, the BC Prosecution Service said it charged 124 of the 148 people referred to it by police.

Mike Farnworth, provincial Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General, said he shares the same goals as the retailers and pointed to his government’s rebooting of a program whereby a dozen new teams of Crown prosecutors, provincial corrections staff members and police officers target repeat violent offenders in certain cities.

“Incidents of violence and vandalism we are seeing – here and across the country – are very concerning,” he said in a statement.

The new program is intended to better tailor punishments to chronic and repeat offenders, including by denying them bail, while also helping them access mental health and drug treatments.

The provinces have pressed the federal government to act on the issue. Ottawa responded with legislation earlier this year aimed at making it harder for repeat violent offenders to obtain bail by requiring them to show why they should be released. On Sept. 18, the House of Commons unanimously passed the legislation. The bill is now before the Senate.

In January, The Globe and Mail chronicled one Vancouver man’s nine-year run of convictions for shoplifting offences and random assaults, a case study in the systemic gaps that allow a tiny number of people – most of them dealing with the triple crises of homelessness, complex mental health issues and long-standing addictions – to continue assaulting strangers.

The province’s Attorney-General, Niki Sharma, has said that saga is a result of the justice system’s failure to provide adequate mental health care. The Globe found that B.C.’s overwhelmed justice system often releases violent offenders after brief periods of incarceration, even in cases where they don’t – or are unable to – comply with bail or probation conditions.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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