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Tigard Police take on the business beat

They're the only unit of its kind in the country, a team of Tigard investigators is cracking down on crimes against local companies

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tigard Police detectives Jamey McDonald, left, and TJ Hahn talk about their time investigating crimes committed against businesses.When Jim Delmore first noticed appliances were missing from his model home in Tigard last year, he didn’t expect police to do much.

Delmore, a construction manager at Stonebridge Homes NW in Lake Oswego, said it’s fairly common for appliances to go missing from his model homes.

“About once a year, something would disappear — like a dishwasher,” he said.

He reported the thefts to police, who came out and took his statement.

“That’s usually where it stops,” he said. “Police come out, take a report and say that they will do everything they can, but that’s it.”

And in most cities across the country, that’s likely all that would have happened.

But that’s not TJ Hahn’s style.

Hahn is a detective with Tigard Police Department’s Commercial Crimes Unit, a division of the police department that has exclusively investigated crimes against local businesses since 2008.

The unit is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country, said Lt. Jamey McDonald, the unit’s supervisor. Traditionally, crimes against businesses are often lower priorities for police.

“Job site thefts in particular don’t really get investigated,” McDonald said. “Partially, that’s because they are difficult to investigate and are time consuming, but also because there often isn’t the staffing level to do it.”

Hahn said business owners who are victims of crime are often left feeling law enforcement agencies don’t care about their loss.

“There comes a point where businesses get tired of calling the police, because they feel that nothing ever gets done,” Hahn said. “We’ve learned that the hard way.”

With more than 3,000 businesses scattered across Tigard, that left a great deal of crimes going uninvestigated, McDonald said.

The three-person team of McDonald, Hahn and Det. Gabriella Schweitz hope to change that perception.

“The cases we work, the truth is that the vast majority didn’t get investigated prior to 2008,” McDonald said. “Everything we do is tied to the business community, or generated from the business community.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tigard Police detective T.J. Hahn discusses how effective their unit is fighting crimes committed against businesses, by partnering with the community to spread information.

Large case load

The Commercial Crimes Unit keeps busy.

Hundreds of cases come across their desks every month — everything from petty shoplifting to prostitution, drug issues, chop shops, counterfeit credit cards, burglaries, embezzlement, fraud and identity theft.

“It’s a challenge for us,” McDonald said. “We’re at capacity for being able to investigate cases. These guys never have any spare time.”

This year alone, the CCU has made more than 80 arrests, said Jim Wolf, Tigard Police spokesman.

The unit also helps train local businesses on how to protect themselves from becoming a target for criminals, including working with small business owners to spot shoplifters and working with Washington Square mall retailers to help avoid organized retail crime rings.

Even if the unit doubled in size, McDonald said the unit would still have a hefty case load.

“We could absolutely keep two more detectives busy,” McDonald said. “They would have plenty of work to do and still be working overtime. A lot.”

The unit is funded through business license fees charged by the city.

“I don’t know of anything else funded the same way we are, and the only other commercial crimes unit we’ve found is in the Los Angeles Police Department, and their focus is different,” McDonald said.

The LAPD unit works largely with counterfeit products and fraud. Tigard’s unit, in contrast, works with every company that does business in the city of Tigard, from small mom-and-pop consignment shops to industrial manufacturers and multi-billion-dollar national chains.

“People we have arrested have told us, ‘It’s just a business, they’ve got deep pockets. It’ doesn’t matter.’ But it does,” McDonald said. “We all end up paying more for things because people out there commit crimes.”

Delmore said the items stolen in his case weren’t the type of items insurance would cover.

“It’s tough enough as a builder to get insurance in the first place. You can’t turn that type of thing into your insurance. They’ll drop you,” he said. “And you can’t expect a buyer to pay an additional $2,000 on a house to make up the cost. You just have to eat it.”

Hahn’s investigation into the model home burglaries lasted more than a year and led to the arrest of Darcy Frisby last month. The 42-year-old Tigard resident allegedly broke into model homes across the Portland area and stole thousands of dollars worth of appliances and furniture, many of which were found stashed in storage units across the Portland area.

That investigation continues, McDonald said.

“Who knows what direction the investigation will take, but there will be more to come, for sure,” he said. “If you had asked us a month ago if we’d be able to recover all those pieces, I’d have said no. I don’t think anybody ever thought we’d ever get that stuff back.”

The unit warned local homebuilders and neighboring police departments about the thefts, and soon, similar reports began to flood in from Lake Oswego, Happy Valley, Beaverton and West Linn police departments, as well as the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office.

Delmore said it likely wouldn’t have been possible to arrest Darcy and return the stolen items without a unit like the CCU taking the initiative.

“Those guys are amazing,” Delmore said. “They are so diligent, and they do fantastic work in Tigard. The city is absolutely lucky to have them.” Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Lt. Jamey McDonald returns a stolen oven to Bill and Gail Miller on Wednesday, Dec. 17. McDonald leads the Commercial Crimes Unit, a division of the Tigard Police Department that specifically investigates crimes against local businesses.

Bottom line

Commercial Crimes Unit detectives mean business.

For years, shoplifters have stolen items from retail stores, only to return and get a cash refund. That’s traditionally been seen as a misdemeanor, and shoplifters will be given a summons to appear in court. But not in Tigard.

“It turns out there is case law for it as first-degree felony theft,” McDonald said. “People who know the system take advantage of it, but when they come to Tigard, we charge them with theft 1, and we lodge them in the Washington County Jail. The word is on the streets that you don’t steal in Tigard, because you will go to jail.”

That mentality has made Tigard a major player in the region when it comes to handling commercial crimes, Hahn said.

Several police agencies have contacted the unit to discuss tactics, and McDonald said other Portland-area police agencies are starting to pay more attention to commercial crimes.

“The curve is finally starting to catch up,” he said. “Agencies are calling us to see what we are doing and how we do it.”

Hahn joined the CCU three years ago and has another year with the unit before he is rotated to another department.

He said it’s unlike any other police work he has ever done.

“If I could do this for the rest of my career, I would,” Hahn said. “If you had asked me that five years ago, before I started here, I probably wouldn’t have said that.”

The unit has also earned the respect of Tigard’s business community.

Hahn said many businesses owners have his cellphone number and call him directly when something happens.

“They don’t (need to) call 911 any more because of the relationship that we have built and the reputation that we have,” he said.

For Delmore, it’s a welcome shift in the law enforcement industry.

“From a small business standpoint, it’s nice to have somebody in your corner,” he said.

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