Most days when you drive through Federal Way, you will see at least one or two people pushing shopping carts filled with items often covered with a blanket or tarp. You can also spot someone with a shopping cart in a bus stop huddled under that cover or in front of one of the motels along Pacific Highway. People frequently hide under this cover while smoking fentanyl or using other hard drugs. The carts that belong to the stores are found abandoned all over the city and in the woods and have been a growing nuisance to our city for years.
Shopping cart theft as public nuisance brought on by stores
The City of Federal Way is having a hard time enforcing shopping cart theft. Attempts to address it date back to 2009. Back then, the action of stealing wasn't much of a concern as much as the blight of hundreds of shopping carts per month being left abandoned on the streets. Instead of tackling the root cause of the issue, which is theft, the city deemed abandoned carts a potential health and public safety hazard and volunteers collected them and returned them to the stores.
As volunteer cart collectors retired and the carts became a greater nuisance, our city followed other cities in penalizing stores when theft occurred. Mayor Jim Ferrell worked diligently to put in place an ordinance to fine businesses when their shopping carts were stolen. This current city ordinance only applies to abandoned shopping carts. Under this ordinance, businesses receive a bill from the city for carts that are found abandoned in the city. The carts are kept in a jail on city property until the bill is paid. The intended purpose of the ordinance was to encourage businesses to protect their own carts from theft. Some businesses like Costco are good about keeping their carts safe from theft, but other businesses don’t take proactive measures, or don't have the means to protect their carts.
Shopping carts and charity theft for the houseless
With this new ordinance that forces a store to pick up the tab, our mayor pointed out that our financial penalties are lower than other cities. There have been many in the community who have supported this approach while making excuses for the thief. The argument against enforcing shopping cart theft has been compelling to many for years as noted in examples here found in a Federal Way Community Facebook group post from 2017.
Stores are not allowed to chase people with stolen items and carts.
Federal Way has bigger issues going on.
Homeless are justified to take the $500 carts to carry their items.
Stores have plenty of carts to go around.
There are people dying of starvation in Puerto Rico.
Impacts of abandoned cart ordinance
Stores are losing thousands of shopping carts each year. The theft has continued, and stores rarely retrieve their carts from the city of Federal Way. Consumers have often had to search for carts at the store, so the stores are simply buying more carts and passing the expense on to the consumer. Carts are often stolen by homeless individuals to carry their belongings but often they are used to carry heavy items such as propane tanks or even furniture into a homeless encampment. Many use the carts to simply walk out of a store with stolen items and retail workers are not allowed to stop them. They turn around and sell the stolen items to buy drugs. One cart found on a downtown street during a recent Stand Up community cleanup was filled with makeup from a local store.
Now over a decade later since the city began to wrestle with the cart issue, with much time and effort put into it, the problem still exists. Community members have gotten impatient with the city for not addressing the issue along with the growing number of homeless encampments and have protested with their own cleanups. The city council is back to the drawing board, but this time it appears that they are moving in the right direction, attacking the problem of theft, not the symptom of blight. Will the city council get it right this time and finally solve the issue, or will the problem continue for another decade and grow?
Aligning shopping cart theft laws with city ordinance
Officers are sometimes frustrated with not being able to deal with stolen carts in the field. Washington State passed a shopping cart theft law back in 1985 making it illegal to steal a grocery cart. To enforce the theft of carts and subsequent nuisance to our community and local businesses, the city of Federal Way will need to pass a revised city ordinance to align it with state law. If this new ordinance is passed, a sign must be affixed to all carts identifying the owner of the cart or the retailer or both and notifies the public that it is unlawful to remove the cart from the premises or parking lot. When carts are properly labelled, police can cite any individual walking with a shopping cart off the business premises. Individuals who are cited could be required to pay a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and up to $1000 in fines or any combo of both.
This enforcement can occur now under state law and has been on several occasions when the carts were already labelled by the stores. Many businesses have not bothered to affix a label to their carts because they don’t think the city will enforce the law. At a Parks/Recreation/Human Services & Public Safety Committee meeting there was discussion about how to incentivize businesses to label their carts and waiving the cart retrieval fee for abandoned carts was one idea. A nonprofit called Stand Up Federal Way is now conducting coordinated city and encampment cleanups and returning carts to the stores. This will likely alleviate some of the expense to the city while they work out details of a new plan and incentivize businesses. Once these carts are labelled per a revised ordinance, there will need to be a plan moving forward when cleanups occur that involve temporary possession of abandoned shopping carts.
Empowering people to change for the better
One thing about enforcement of ordinances and laws is that it can compel someone to make a change for the better. With enforcement for the theft, there can be options provided to an active drug user that can ultimately save their life. Enforcement will take time and will require more effort for officers in the field who are often tied down with bigger issues. We must decide if it is worth putting time and police resources into addressing the issue of shopping carts. There will continue to be a cost if we continue with the current approach. This cost is to the businesses, the consumer and to the city to pick up carts all over the city. There is also additional cost to stores where carts make it easy to walk out with stolen items. Perhaps the greatest cost of all is to the cart thief by making it easier to continue their lifestyle and missing an opportunity to steer them in a direction toward help.
It would be best if shoppers, businesses, and the city could partner in keeping carts off the streets. Some businesses inventory their carts at the end of the day, and some keep the carts locked in a corral. Some stores have installed underground devices that prevent carts from being wheeled off the premises. This is very expensive. Some stores round up their carts at the end of the day, but others leave their carts out in the parking lot overnight and the word spreads to transients where to easily access them. We can make a difference in our community to prevent theft of carts by pushing a shopping cart from the outskirts of a parking lot into the store on our way in to shop. People can take the extra steps to push their shopping carts back into the store rather than leave it in a corral. Or people can grab a cart from the corral on the way in.
Shifting our focus and working out the details.
For now, our city council will determine what happens to a person with a cart in September and just start with getting businesses to label carts. On the council, there is still a difference of opinion on the approach to this issue. Lydia Assefa-Dawson wants to incentivize not taking a cart and focus on housing since they have too much stuff to carry, and she considers this a housing issue. Jack Walsh wants to provide option of community court to address a potential drug issue. There are legal issues when the stolen cart is possessed by a person but contains personal belongings. Dealing with personal belongings is a challenge. Determining stolen items from personal belongings is an additional challenge. There are details to work out. Will the officer have the person taking the cart dump items out, fill tubs with belongings or fill a large plastic bag? Or will they trust them to empty the cart and give it back and issue a warning? A non-police employee taking someone’s possessions, itemizing and storing is still problematic if they are a city employee because they are a representative of the government. The city will need to have a discussion with the courts if they decide to go with this approach. There will be another meeting about this on September 13th, 2022.