Liquor shoplifting: Did initiative create a problem?

Officials are worried that the proliferation of private liquor sales has led to more chances for underage theft. But no officials have hard numbers on the scope of the problem.
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Rep. Chris Hurst

Officials are worried that the proliferation of private liquor sales has led to more chances for underage theft. But no officials have hard numbers on the scope of the problem.

Did Initiative 1183, the state's liquor privatization measure, create a liquor shoplifting problem in Washington?

So far, our legislators don't know.

A work group convened by the head of the state House's government accountability committee to address liquor shoplifting left its first meeting Monday with more questions than answers.

The group, dubbed the "Post-Privatization Workgroup on Alcohol Diversion, Access and Loss Prevention," spent much of its time just trying to get a handle on the issue, as representatives from various grocery corporations and associations took turns saying how little information they had about the crime.

About halfway through the meeting, after representatives of grocers and grocers' associations said that they had not brought hard numbers to share with the group, Enumclaw Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst asked: "How do we get to the question of do we have a problem, and if so how big is it?"

Typically, workgroups assembled in the Legislature study issues to decide if a change to the law is necessary; if one is, they often will also help prepare the first draft of a bill. Since Hurst's committee only began meeting halfway through this legislative session, well after several key deadlines, any changes or proposals the committee might decide to recommend likely would not see a larger vote in the Legislature until next year.

Hurst said he convened the group in response to a request from House Speaker Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and that he and Chopp shared the feeling that the shoplifting question warranted further investigation. Liquor shoplifting, especially by teens, has been covered extensively by newspapers around the state since the 2011 initiative switched liquor sales from state-run stores to private groceries.

"I've noticed a big change, personally," Hurst said. "When I went out and saw alcohol being displayed right by the front door, that was a problem."

Another part of the reason for creating the group, Hurst said, was a request earlier in the year from the Washington Association of Police Chiefs and Sherriffs for a change in the rules about how liquor theft is reported. Currently, stores are not required to report thefts of liquor to the police, or any other state agency. Earlier this year the association asked the state Liquor Control Board to change require stores to report their losses due to theft so that police and regulators in the state could see if a problem existed.

But the stores resisted the idea, said Mitch Barker, head of the police association after Monday's meeting.

Barker said the original request wasn't motivated at first by any concrete knowledge of a problem, but rather by wanting to figure out if a problem did exist. "We didn't think it was a problem, but now we think it is," Barker said. "The fact that they won't give us the numbers makes me suspicious."

Representatives of grocery chains, including Fred Meyer and Costco, took a different tack, saying they did not have numbers or even general data about the amount of liquor being shoplifted from their stores, but that they would find the information to present to the workgroup.

Despite the lack of hard numbers, Hurst said afterward he wasn't disappointed with the course the meeting had taken. Rather, he said, he trusted the retailers to make good on their promise to supply the information, and also had expected the group would take some time to gather information.

The next meeting will be held within a month, Hurst said. Along with giving retailers time to get their own information together, Hurst said, the delay would also be a time to study the issue as a whole,  including how other states dealt with the privatization process.

The Liquor Control Board could create an inventory rule to require tracking without waiting for the Legislature. 

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tom James

Tom James

Tom James is a feature writer and photographer from Kingston, Washington, who has reported from Seattle, Olympia, Guatemala, Jordan, and the Olympic Peninsula on topics ranging from drug use in the Navy to the silent epidemic of PTSD among refugees and what happens when fathers are deported. You can find his contact information at