Kathy Hochul’s Copy-and-Paste Crime-Fighting Formula

This year, the governor’s budget contains an agenda to combat retail theft. It looks a lot like last year’s plan to curb gun violence.

Chris Gelardi   ·   January 16, 2024
Governor Kathy Hochul stands with a hand on her hip next to a New York state trooper on a cloudy day.
Governor Kathy Hochul with a state trooper after an explosion in Niagara Falls on November 22, 2023. | Mike Groll / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

When it comes to crime, Governor Kathy Hochul has a playbook.

“Thieves brazenly tear items off shelves and menace employees. Owners go broke replacing broken windows and stolen goods,” Hochul said in her State of the State address last week. It’s “chaos” that has led to “a breakdown in the social order,” and she wants to dedicate $40 million of additional state funds to stop it.

Those millions represent a copy-and-paste approach to the crime surge du jour. During her first two state budget processes — when the governor’s policy-making power is at its max — Hochul pushed through a tough-on-crime crackdown on gun violence: more street policing, more police surveillance, more prosecutors, and tougher penalties. Now, she’s using the same playbook against retail theft.

To combat gun violence two years ago, Hochul launched information-sharing initiatives between federal, state, and local police. This year, she wants a federal-state-local “Law Enforcement Joint Operation on Retail Theft.”

That joint operation would be “anchored” around the state’s Crime Analysis Center Network, a series of local police headquarters modeled after so-called “fusion centers,” the secretive intelligence hubs created during the post-September 11, 2001, expansion in domestic surveillance.

Hochul has invested heavily in that model. In 2022, she created an entirely new network of intelligence hubs dedicated to “crime guns” and boosted funding to both the Crime Analysis Center Network and the State Police’s own fusion center. The following year, she established a new crime analysis center and ramped up the state fusion center’s social media surveillance efforts. Building on those efforts this year, she has proposed creating a clearinghouse within the Crime Analysis Center Network to gather and sift through information from retailers and disseminate it among the newly shoplifting-focused cops.

Hochul has argued that the intense surveillance is necessary because retail crime is increasingly “driven by organized retail theft networks.” But experts have placed the total percentage of retail loss they can attribute to organized operations in the single digits. (Asked for evidence for her assertion, Hochul’s office only said that the administration met with industry organizations and retail theft prevention experts.)

New York City did see a 64 percent increase in reported shoplifting between 2019 and 2023, even as most major cities saw retail theft go down. Statewide, incidents have risen at about a third of that pace.

Beyond surveillance for organized crime, Hochul’s anti-retail theft efforts focus on the same street policing initiatives she used to tackle gun violence. In 2022 and 2023, Hochul won millions in increased funding for Community Stabilization Units, New York State Police patrols she deployed to dozens of new communities across the state. This year, she wants to spend $25 million to create and deploy a new State Police team dedicated to building cases against shoplifting rings, as well as a new “Smash and Grab Enforcement Unit.” She also wants to increase the use of so-called “trespass affidavits,” or agreements between law enforcement and businesses that allow police to arrest people who return to a store after the business accuses them of stealing.

Hochul is “trying to come up with a New York solution for a national problem.”

—Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie

Over the past two years, Hochul has funneled tens of millions of dollars in grants to local police departments engaged in similar aggressive, “hot spot” policing initiatives; this year, she wants $5 million to help local law enforcement build out their retail theft policing initiatives.

Once the cops wrangle shoplifters, Hochul wants district attorneys ready to prosecute them. Last year, she disseminated tens of millions to hire “hundreds of new prosecutors.” This year, she wants to send DAs $10 million specifically to prosecute property crime cases. And like the previous two budget cycles, which saw the governor push through harsher penalties for certain types of gun possession, Hochul wants the court system to crack down on retail theft: She’s proposing legislation to increase sentences for assaulting a retail worker and establish criminal penalties for facilitating the sale of stolen goods online.

“We used this approach with illegal guns,” Hochul said last week, “and it worked.”

It’s true that gun violence in New York, including in the jurisdictions Hochul has targeted, is on the downswing. But whether her approach has contributed to that is hard to assess. New York’s recently declining gun violence is part of a nationwide pattern. Crime statistics are notoriously fungible, and researchers routinely warn against extrapolating causes or trends from year-over-year numbers.

Left out of Hochul’s pitches are the political dynamics at play. With gun violence — a very real phenomenon that results in tragic victimization — Hochul found a middle ground between those to her right urging her to crack down harder on crime and the progressive left wary of expanding the police apparatus.

Retail theft is different: While Hochul is likely extra sensitive to attacks from the right, it’s hard to imagine progressives greenlighting more policing and incarceration as a solution to shoplifting.

“While we share the Governor’s dedication to keep all New Yorkers safe, increasing penalties for retail theft will not make our communities safer,” Alana Sivin, New York state criminal justice director for the progressive advocacy organization FWD.us said in a statement. Other prominent statewide groups, as well as progressive legislators, have long pushed the governor to forgo carceral policies in favor of public welfare programs.

In the past, legislative leadership has fought Hochul on other criminal justice initiatives — most notably her efforts to expand pretrial incarceration. Speaking to reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie offered tempered skepticism about her retail theft plan.

“We’ll look at everything — we’re always trying to make the world and the state a better place,” he said. But Hochul’s approach, he suggested, is “trying to come up with a New York solution for a national problem.”

Chris Bragg contributed reporting.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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