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Kenji Mochizuki puts his shopping cart into the cart corral at the Vons super market on Broadway Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITYWIDE — They’re run into in parking lots, abandoned on street corners and generally abused, but police can’t crack down until offenders are caught in the act.

The victims, shopping carts, represent not only a useful tool at the neighborhood grocery store, they’re one significant investment that owners have a hard time protecting from damage or theft.

The Santa Monica Police Department actually has a business and professions code specifically for those caught in illicit possession of shopping carts (22435.2 f, if you care), and businesses specializing in cart collection zoom through neighborhoods picking them up for $12 a pop.

According to SMPD Sgt. Jaime Hernandez, officers issued 105 citations specifically for shopping cart theft in the last three years, and arrested 58 people in the process.

That probably doesn’t cover all of the incidents of theft or possession, Hernandez said, because many are cited under a different code for simple possession of stolen property.

That can turn into an expensive proposition for business owners.

Shopping carts run anywhere from $110 to $115 a piece, said Richard Johnson, manager at Bob’s Market on Ocean Park Boulevard.

The market buys between 10 and 15 a year to replace lost or broken carts.

“We lock them up at night inside the store,” Johnson said. “I think our theft ratio has gone way down since officers have been policing them more, and changed the laws.”

Although other mechanisms exist, like systems that lock up the wheels when patrons cross outside parking lot boundaries, they’re expensive and discourage the neighborhood feel Bob’s is going for. He said he encourages older customers to use the carts to carry groceries home.

That still leaves them open to theft, which is where people like Officer Robert Martinez come in.

Martinez has served for over a decade on the SMPD’s Homeless Liaison Program (HLP), pronounced “Help,” patrolling the streets and making contact with homeless both for crime prevention and to connect them with city services.

Santa Monica’s homeless population contains the most visible offenders in the realm of shopping carts, but are hardly the only ones that borrow the things for an extended period of time.

“I think the reason that they’re the most visible with the homeless is that they’re using them for the purpose of storing long term,” Martinez said. “Not that they’re the main culprits. Everyone is. But they’re more apparent because they have all their stuff.”

Seeing a homeless person with a shopping cart tips attentive officers off to more than meets the eye — the homeless with carts often aren’t from Santa Monica.

“Homeless people in Santa Monica know that’s one thing we’re looking for,” Martinez said. “Usually, if they have a cart, they’re new in town. It’s a huge opportunity for engagement.”

Since possession of a shopping cart is technically a crime, it allows police to approach a person when they otherwise would not be legally able to do so.

It helps HLP officers connect homeless people with Santa Monica programs that can reconnect them with their families or get them into drug rehab programs, Martinez said.

“If they do fit the population or there’s something they qualify for, we can get them in the right direction,” Martinez said.

That way, officers not only find out who the homeless are, they can let them know the rules and get the shopping cart back to the rightful owner, Martinez said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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