East Tennessee law enforcement and lawmakers are working together to crack down on organized retail crime.
The Knox County Sheriff's Office Organized Retail Crime Task Force arrested 309 people from Nov. 21 through Dec. 28, 2016. Twenty-eight of those were juveniles. Officers recovered about $50,000 in stolen property.
"We concentrate on the retail crime a lot during the holidays, but it's a problem that happens year round," said Lee Tramel, chief of administration for KCSO.
KCSO opened a precinct in the Turkey Creek area in May 2016, Tramel said. Deputies are working to combat the number of retail crimes.
"We have a great deal of problems with retail crime in this area," Tramel added.
He said KCSO has done a good job combating the problem in the last few years, but they may soon be receiving some help from East Tennessee lawmakers in Nashville.
Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, said during a recent taping of Inside Tennessee that he plans to file a bill to tighten laws surrounding organized retail crime.
The majority of this retail crime, he said, falls in his district, specifically in Turkey Creek.
"Most people don't realize that Knoxville is the number one city in the nation for gift card theft and abuse," Zachary added.
The bill Zachary plans to file takes issue with the purchasing and reselling of gift cards, as well as possibly increasing the punishment for retail crime.
Tramel said he believes the number of retail crimes in Knox County is directly tied to the drug abuse problem.
"With the opioid epidemic that we're facing in our community and in this region," he said, "it drives that crime. these types of crimes feed those addictions."
Tramel said shoplifters will steal merchandise from stores, return it for gift cards and then sell the gift cards for cash.
"I would dare say more than 90 percent of the people that we arrested of the 309 are addicted to opiates," he said.
The easy option to fix the problem, Tramel said, would be for stores to have a 'no receipt, no return' policy.
KCSO is increasing its presence to combat the retail crime issue, but he said it will take a joint effort with lawmakers and others to fully address the root of the problem.
"What we're hoping for is they get clean and sober," Tramel said, "but the first step is to get them out of our area away from the citizens of Knox County who are trying to come down here to shop and enjoy their time."