Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris

Lancaster's outspoken mayor has another startling idea: He wants to send shoplifters into stores across the city, make a list of the best places to steal from, then announce the list publicly.

The goal, Mayor R. Rex Parris said, is to force the hands of retailers that don't call the police on some shoplifters.

Parris said Tuesday he plans to release such stores' names in about 90 days - essentially announcing to criminals that it's open season on their shelves.

If they refuse to change their policies in the meantime, that is.

"It's going to be real expensive if you do that, because I'm going to tell everybody, `If you want to get free stuff, this is the store to do it,' " Parris said.

He said some stores, generally big-box retailers, have policies against calling police on small-time shoplifters - under $100, say - because it takes too much staff time and money to have them arrested and go to court to testify against them.

If they catch shoplifters, those stores will take their stuff back, but let the crooks go.

Such businesses are "abdicating their responsibility to the community," Parris said. He added that "crime is contagious," so letting people get away with stealing simply encourages more stealing and can even lead to more serious crime.

"If you want rampant crime, just don't hold people accountable," he said.

Ramon Ortega, president of the Antelope Valley Chambers of Commerce, said it's too early to say whether businesses will oppose the plan.

He said 10 to 20 percent of the chambers' 600 members are retailers, but he hadn't yet heard any reaction from them by the end of the day Tuesday. Most of his calls, he said, were from reporters.

Parris, a Republican, first mentioned the plan during a City Council meeting last week, but he sent out an announcement of it on Tuesday.

"I can see the mayor's point that (not prosecuting shoplifters) just encourages criminal behavior: `If I steal and you catch me, hey, you're just going to slap me on the wrist and send me on my way,' " Ortega said.

Parris wouldn't yet name any stores likely to be on his list.

He said he first wants the city's Criminal Justice Commission and the Sheriff's Department, which patrols Lancaster by contract, to figure out how to verify which stores don't prosecute.

Parris envisions teams of "undercover thieves" going into stores to see which ones call police.

As he put it: "We'll steal a bunch of stuff and then take it back."

A patrol supervisor at the Lancaster sheriff's station said he'd heard nothing about that plan, and a station spokesman couldn't be reached.

Parris said he wasn't concerned about any burden his plan might place on the Sheriff's Department or the courts.

Officials with the California Retailers Association and National Retail Federation, which represent stores, couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday. It's not clear whether Parris' idea has been tried anywhere else. The mayor said he wasn't aware of another city that's done it.

"Nope, it's another first for Lancaster," he said.

A 60-year-old personal injury attorney, Parris has shown no shortage of ambition since he was elected mayor of the Antelope Valley city in 2008. And he has cheerfully shrugged off criticism, saying he doesn't much care about it since he has no further political aspirations.

Parris sports a white beard and has the theatrical flair of a trial lawyer. He wore a head mic for one recent press conference, pacing around as he spoke, not unlike Britney Spears or a televangelist.

Some Parris plans are lofty or quirky.

His bio on the city website he says he wants to make Lancaster, which has 157,000 people, the "alternative energy capital of the world." In 2010, he announced plans to put solar panels atop the carport at Lancaster's minor-league ballpark.

Last year, he started piping music and the sounds of chirping birds out of speakers in the ground, giving downtown sidewalks the feel of an outdoor mall. Parris said the soundscape, created partly with his own money, was meant to relax people. 

Other efforts have proven controversial.

In his 2010 State of the City address, as he urged passage of a measure allowing prayer at city meetings, he spoke of "growing a Christian community." After criticism, he said the remarks were taken out of context. But Parris resisted efforts to end explicitly Christian prayers at public meetings.

In August, he and sheriff's officials announced a surveillance plane had begun flying over Lancaster to prevent crime and catch criminals. Parris said he expected other cities to copy that move, which will cost the city about $1 million a year.

The mayor mocked civil liberties concerns by joking that he'd wanted a more powerful plane that could see inside people's houses, but no one else liked that idea.

Parris said he got his latest idea after reading an opinion piece in a local newspaper about a man aghast to see a woman shoplifting and not being charged. The resulting idea, Parris said, "just popped out of my head one morning."

Asked whether he expects pushback from retailers, Parris said, "Sure, when don't I get pushback?"

But he said businesses will come around.

"I think that if they ignore me, they'll go out of business," he said.

eric.hartley@dailynews.com

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