Shoplifting has increased dramatically in Tucson in the past three years, and Tucson police have created a team to go after serial offenders.

Two detectives and 24 plainclothes officers are working stores where shoplifters strike most to build felony cases against repeat thieves, said Capt. Paul Sayre of the property crimes division. Some of the officers are working undercover in hopes of catching habitual offenders in the act.

Steady growth in shoplifting, along with the realization that many thieves were hitting stores over and over, resulted in the concentrated effort involving police, the business community and prosecutors.

The idea is to arrest the major offenders and charge them with crimes at a level that would result in jail time.

“It is really important that Tucson police, the city and county prosecutors work closely together in a coordinated effort on this issue that is significantly impacting our community,” said Baird Greene, deputy city attorney of the criminal division. He said each group plays a role in making solid cases so offenders are locked up, rather than repeatedly receiving probation or being referred to diversion programs.

Also, by targeting shoplifters police expect a drop in violent crimes because some of the thieves are tied to burglaries, robberies and carjackings.

Earlier this year, the new larceny detail made a significant arrest when officers busted Brandy Ambrose, 31, for suspicion of a series of shoplifting incidents at three Target stores. Ambrose, who has previous arrests for narcotic offenses, was stealing electronic tablets and trading them for drugs, said Sgt. Chris Widmer. She faces robbery and organized retail theft charges.

Last year there were nearly 15,000 shoplifting incidents in the city, police records show. That’s up from about 12,500 in 2012. (See accompanying chart.)

While beer is the popular item thieves grab at convenience stores, shoplifting affects most retailers like Walmart, Target, supermarkets, electronic stores and department stores — and results in serious losses.

Individuals or rings of criminals who steal from retailers and then resell goods impact businesses nationwide by an estimated $15 billion to $30 billion in annual losses yearly, the National Retail Federation says. Shoplifting overburdens “the police and the courts, adds to a store’s security expenses and costs consumers more for goods,” says the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.

The state’s Organized Retail Crime Association meets monthly and works with law enforcement to make a dent in thefts.

“Retailers are losing millions of dollars each year,” said Carlos Estrada, loss-prevention manager for the Arizona Division of Circle K Stores and a founding member of the state association’s Southern Arizona Chapter. “When the bad guys take our product, it hurts all of us and minimizes our government because of the loss in tax revenue.

“There are groups that hit stores in Phoenix, along the Interstate 10 corridor, and in Tucson — and on their return trip to Phoenix, they do the same thing.”

He said the organized groups steal products, including beer, cigarettes, baby food, detergent, razors, makeup, clothing and electronic products and then sell those goods to others. The stolen products are sold at swap meets, from peddlers in neighborhoods, or on eBay or Craigslist. He recalled a case in Phoenix where a woman was selling stolen beer from her home for $1 a can.

Locally, Estrada said he’s busted four generations of one family as serial beer skippers. “It happened five years ago, and it was a learning experience about facing a culture of crime,” said Estrada, who attended court hearings in the case. The family members faced a diversion program, probation and jail.

“My No. 1 goal as a crime prevention manager is for employees and customers to go home safe,” said Estrada, 50, who has worked for Circle K for 22 years.

The corporation has 116 stores in the city, and between 1,400 to 3,600 customers patronize each store daily. “Ninety-nine percent of our customers are great, and then you have that 1 percent,” he said. Circle K spends about $7 million every five years to update its surveillance equipment at state stores, he said.

That surveillance technology, which captures shoplifters in the act, is among the evidence retailers provide to police.

Estrada has worked with law enforcement for seven years to get shoplifters and robbers behind bars.

“I am real excited about the new larceny detail,” he said, “because specific detectives will concentrate on the shoplifting problem.”

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at or 573-4104.