November 22, 2019

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Liquor store theft demands complex, costly solutions

Editorial

It’s understandable that citizens who respect the law are alarmed, some to the point of vigilantism, about the lawlessness that abounds daily in Winnipeg liquor stores. But it’s also true that effective solutions to the problem would be exorbitantly expensive for the Crown corporation responsible for the province’s Liquor Marts.

Police, officials urge Liquor Marts customers to avoid mixing it up with booze thieves

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Andrea Kowal, Director, Corporate and Public Affairs Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries speaks to media about liquor store thefts at their office in Winnipeg Monday.
Andrea Kowal, Director, Corporate and Public Affairs Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries speaks to media about liquor store thefts at their office in Winnipeg Monday.

Posted: 28/10/2019 7:00 PM

Luke Bodek had planned to pick produce — not a fight — when he and his mom went grocery shopping earlier this month.

That changed when he witnessed two people ransack an express liquor store attached to the East Kildonan supermarket he was in. Concerned for the safety of fellow customers, the 35-year-old recalled he suddenly felt adrenaline take over and found himself tackling one of the would-be thieves to the ground.

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The highly public thefts have plagued Winnipeg liquor stores for more than a year after it became common knowledge that liquor store staff are directed to keep safe and stay out of the way as thieves loot the liquor. The free-for-all has recently become more dangerous in a couple of ways.

While initial thefts seemed restricted to one or two thieves, social-media videos show the thefts have now expanded in some cases to organized groups of young adults who burst into a store and, within a minute or two, steal massive quantities of product. Winnipeg police get between 10 and 20 reports of thefts at Liquor Marts every day.

A second dangerous development is that some citizens have taken the law into their own hands — literally — and tackled and subdued thieves until police arrive.

The total value of stolen liquor is minuscule in the context of gross sales at Manitoba liquor outlets, and is comparable to shoplifting losses in other retail sectors. But the issue has grown bigger than the theft of bottled beverages because of its highly public nature. Some customers see it happening and use their smartphones to post online video of the incidents.

The nature of the liquor larceny sparks controversy because it appears the thieves are stealing with impunity. A defining characteristic of a country such as Canada is that when crimes are committed against people and property, good citizens agree to let the state handle it and criminals get busted.

But when it seems criminals can offend without consequence, some people feel the state has reneged on its end of the deal, and a few frustrated citizens will turn to vigilantism.

There are solutions, but they don’t come cheaply. Security staff with the training and authority to physically apprehend thieves could be posted at each of Manitoba’s 51 Liquor Marts and 175 liquor vendors, but the added staffing costs would be astronomical. Or the province could revert to its previous system, in which the products were kept out of sight and customers were served by staff who went into a storeroom to fill the customer’s order — a change that would require massive renovations and additional staff for a more time-consuming service method.

It boils down to this: are such solutions worth blowing up the bottom line of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, which, after all, is a Crown corporation whose profitability benefits all citizens?

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth is meeting with justice officials this week to discuss the problem, and MLL continues to consider preventative measures. Citizens are encouraged to offer public advice to these officials, which is more helpful — and definitely safer — than resorting to vigilantism.

The public is free to speak out about whether the problem is serious enough to warrant such hugely expensive solutions. Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth is meeting with justice officials this week to discuss the problem, and MLL continues to consider preventative measures. Citizens are encouraged to offer public advice to these officials, which is more helpful — and definitely safer — than resorting to vigilantism.

While they’re at it, they might consider asking what the province — which owns and operates the Crown corporation tasked with selling liquor — intends to do. Both our government and the premier who leads it have shown no hesitation when it comes to insinuating themselves into the business of Crown enterprises, but on the issue of liquor-store thefts, they have remained conspicuously silent.

A clear declaration of the province’s immediate strategy for curbing Liquor Mart larceny would be most welcome.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

History

Updated on Wednesday, October 30, 2019 at 10:19 AM CDT: fixes typo

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