Shoplifting has become so rampant that one of the Big Apple’s busiest commercial districts is turning to “man’s best friend” to sniff out thieves.
The 34th Street Partnership — the trade group serving the neighborhood that includes Macy’s Herald Square, Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — is trying to take a bite out of crime by contracting with a firm that provides K-9 units.
The dogged pursuit was launched this month at the CVS at Eighth Avenue and West 34th Street in the heart of the district that has been plagued with thefts.
“We’ve had a lot of complaints. A lot of shoplifting occurs in drugstores,” said Kevin Ward, the vice president of security for the 34th Street Partnership. “We’re trying to address the issue.”
The program — which the trade group says costs in the “low-five figures monthly” — was a necessary investment amid a flood of shoplifting complaints and lax enforcement tied to the state’s soft-of-crime laws, according to Ward.
“We decided to have a very visible deterrent,” said Ward, a retired police officer who was chief of staff to former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.
As part of the initiative with Stapleton Security Services — a firm led by a retired veteran of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit — three K-9 units accompanied by handlers are posted in the vestibule of the store, and outside, working in shifts.
The crime-fighting dogs include Drako, a Czechoslovakian Shepherd; Emirs, a Belgian Malinois, and Del, a primary German Shepherd.
One was recently spotted by The Post wearing a black and white harness that said, “Do Not Pet” while on the job.
When it comes to enforcement, however, the K-9s are more bark than bite as they don’t engage in pursuits.
But the partnership says the program still has teeth — noting there’s been success in thwarting sticky-fingered shoppers simply by having the dogs and guards stationed in the vestibule and outside the CVS.
“It’s effective so far,” Ward said. “We’ve had a couple of people who were known shoplifters who saw the dog and walked out without stealing anything.”
Initial reports over five days from Feb. 15-19 show that the K-9 unit prevented at least 25 thefts and deterred others, according to the trade group, which provided the following examples:
•On Feb. 15: a homeless man attempted to leave the store with unpaid items in the morning. He dropped the goods and fled after being approached by the security officer and the K-9.
•On Feb. 16: Two known serial shoplifters entered the vestibule of the store — but left without entering after seeing the K-9 and guard.
•On Feb. 17: A man attempted to leave the store without paying for two boxes of Tums and three bottles of juice that morning. The manager alerted the guard and K-9, and the thief returned the items when approached.
•On Feb. 19: A homeless man attempted to steal a carton of orange juice along with a container of fruit salad, but returned the goods after management alerted the K-9 and security, who confronted him.
Reports of shoplifting have skyrocketed by nearly 60% in the Midtown South Precinct that encompasses the 34th Street business district — with an increase of 1,000 complaints last year from 2021, according to the most recent available NYPD data.
The surge was primarily driven by small thefts of merchandise worth under $1,000, increasing from 1,572 in 2021 to 2,503 last year, the police statistics show.
Retail thefts that turned violent more than doubled — with cops recording 219 robberies that started as shoplifting incidents in 2022 vs just 95 the year prior, according to the data.
High-end retail thefts, valued at over $1,000, also surged from 310 in 2021 to 413 in 2022.
But the shoplifting scourge isn’t isolated to the pricey touristy area and transit mecca.
Retail theft surged to more than 63,000 complaints last year — a 45% jump from the year prior.
More business districts, including Fordham Road in the Bronx, are launching or beefing up their own private patrols to help curb the shoplifting epidemic.
The disturbing trend has continuously trended up each year since 2006, the earliest year for which NYPD data is available, but has hit record levels in recent years.
Ward said the partnership and the stores themselves can only do so much with thieves who feel emboldened by a broken criminal justice system. He also called for the NYPD to step up, complaining that staffing at the local precinct has been down significantly.
The number of officers in Midtown South has plummeted from 382 in 1994 to 249 last year. By comparison, the busy 75th precinct in Brooklyn had 342 officers, nearly the same as 344 in 1994, according to the partnership.
“Times Square has a dedicated foot patrol. Penn Station doesn’t. The city needs a dedicated foot patrol in Penn Station similar to Times Square,” said Ward.
“Overall crime in the district is up over 100% over two years. There is a correlation with staffing.”
NEW YORK POST