Walgreens, where alleged shoplifter Banko Brown was shot and killed by a security guard last month, has a direct line to District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and her senior staff through the trade group ALTO USA, according to interviews with half-a-dozen former prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and others close to the DA’s office.
They described ALTO as closely involved in shoplifting cases in San Francisco, particularly those involving Walgreens.
The anti-retail-theft trade group, which counts national stores like Walgreens, Target, and Whole Foods as members, first began its relationship with the San Francisco district attorney’s office in November 2020 under Jenkins’s predecessor, Chesa Boudin.
ALTO’s lawyers work for Walgreens, interviewing witnesses, gathering evidence, and pushing for more punitive prosecution of shoplifters. ALTO works closely with district attorneys across the country.
The trade group acts as a public relations firm, police liaison, and criminal prosecutor all rolled into one, hosting meet-and-greets with police and prosecutors on behalf of retail giants.
But ALTO lawyers also assist in prosecution. While they do not work in court directly, they do gather evidence and lobby district attorneys, pushing for more prison time and higher restitution — the amount of money that a convicted thief would have to pay back to a store like Walgreens.
“If they get prosecuted,” a Walgreens investigator boasts in a case study from the group, “they’ll know that it was because they stole from one of our ALTO Alliance stores.”
A closer relationship
The relationship between the San Francisco DA’s office and ALTO is particularly close now, because a lead attorney for the trade group is a personal friend, ally and former colleague of Jenkins.
Xóchitl Carrion, a lead San Francisco attorney for ALTO since November 2021 and Jenkins were both hired as assistant district attorneys under former District Attorney George Gascón — Jenkins in 2014, Carrion in 2015 — and came up in the office at the same time.
“She’s very close personally with Brooke, and with other people in decision-making capacities [at the DA’s office],” said a former prosecutor.
At the District Attorney’s Office, Carrion was a member of a retail task force composed of lawyers and others from the DA’s office and ALTO, according to a former member of the office. The task force worked on retail theft investigations, largely involving Walgreens.
Carrion was also one of several prosecutors, including Jenkins, who left the District Attorney’s Office publicly in July 2022 under its predecessor, Boudin. Like Jenkins, she spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle that month, criticizing Boudin’s performance.
When she left the DA’s office, Carrion went through the revolving door to ALTO and led the partnership from the corporate side, bringing Walgreens investigators into the DA’s office, where they would pose for photos with Jenkins. LinkedIn postings by ALTO employees, including Carrion, show several meetings between the trade group, Walgreens employees, DA staff, San Francisco police, and San Francisco sheriff’s deputies.
Carrion, on behalf of ALTO, has represented the interests of retail giants to the DA’s office since 2021. In San Francisco, sources close to the DA’s office said that ALTO and Walgreens were practically synonymous.
Carrion did not respond to requests for comment.
The Brown shooting
It’s unclear if ALTO or Carrion have been in touch about the Brown shooting. However, ALTO advertises its ability to quickly get return calls from police and prosecutors when others cannot, and those familiar with the DA’s partnership with ALTO said its attorneys would have been in contact regarding the Brown shooting.
In declining to press charges against the guard last week, Jenkins said Walgreens security guard Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony was in “mortal fear” when he shot Brown and that her office could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Anthony did not act in self-defense.
Several sources close to the DA’s office said that, regardless of intent, the decision not to charge the Walgreens security guard was a major relief to the national chain: If Anthony had been charged, the civil case against Walgreens would be a cinch.
“I feel like everyone’s missing the point,” said a source close to the DA’s office, regarding Jenkins’s decision against charging Anthony. “Walgreens would be on the hook for a lot of money if the security guard is held liable.”
Neither the District Attorney’s Office, ALTO, nor Walgreens responded to requests for comment.
ALTO, which also works with stores like CVS and Walmart, has grown its partnership with Walgreens in recent years. The national retailer now uses ALTO’s services in 2,200 stores across the country, up from 500 in 2019.
Walgreens on the hook
If Anthony had been charged in criminal court, any civil case against Walgreens would have been presented to Brown’s family on a silver platter, several attorneys said.
John Burris, the civil rights attorney hired by the family, said he still plans to file a civil suit as soon as this coming Friday, a day after Brown’s funeral; the suit, he says, will target Walgreens, Kingdom Group Protective Services, and Anthony himself.
That suit could be extremely costly: In 2018, the family of a man shot and killed by a Walgreens security guard in Los Angeles filed a $525 million wrongful death suit against Walgreens. The guard was later charged with murder for the shooting; he had shot the shoplifting suspect, Jonathan Hart, in the back of the neck as he fled the store. Both cases are still pending, and Walgreens has filed numerous motions seeking to dismiss the civil charges.
A former prosecutor with the DA’s office said that a guilty criminal verdict against the guard would leave him “salivating,” he said. A subsequent civil victory against Walgreens, he explained, would be almost guaranteed.
Criminal cases carry a higher burden of proof than civil ones. Attorneys are required to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the accused is guilty in a criminal trial. In civil cases, by contrast, attorneys must only prove that the “preponderance of evidence” points to a guilty verdict.
“My job would be so easy. Admission in a criminal suit automatically fulfills the burden of establishing civil liability, it automatically does.”
Civil cases are routinely filed even when a district attorney has not filed criminal charges, however. And Burris, for his part, said he was bullish on the civil suit. “I don’t view it as difficult, I’m very confident.”
Jenkins has said that her office could not prove that Anthony did not act in self-defense, but video of the shooting showed Brown, who was unarmed, backing away from Anthony in the moment just before Anthony raised his pistol and fired, striking Brown once in the chest.
Crucially, Anthony has claimed that Brown threatened to stab him, repeatedly, while pinned to the ground. No other witnesses could corroborate this.
Jenkins has come under fire for her decision not to charge Anthony, the Walgreens security guard, in the April 27 shooting of Brown. Legal experts have questioned the decision not to pursue criminal charges against Anthony, saying the self-defense grounds are not clear-cut.
Board President Aaron Peskin and Supervisor Shamann Walton, in a rebuke of Jenkins’s decision, have asked the California attorney general and the federal Department of Justice to investigate the killing.
ALTO attorneys squeeze shoplifters on Walgreens’ behalf
Several former prosecutors at the District Attorney’s Office, and others close to the office, said that ALTO attorneys, in addition to gathering evidence, routinely ask for the highest possible restitution after a shoplifting case.
“They specifically said their job was to facilitate restitution,” said a former prosecutor familiar with meetings between ALTO attorneys and the DA’s office. The former prosecutor said restitution amounts for a shoplifting case could range wildly, from the low hundreds to several thousands of dollars, and described ALTO attorneys as “collection agents” for Walgreens.
“They wanted to make sure that Walgreens got paid.”
Restitution payments can be onerous for shoplifting suspects. If the amount levied is larger than $2,500, judges can impose interest after 15 days until the sum is paid back in full. Unlike other debts, restitution cannot be erased in bankruptcy.
In San Francisco, only 20 percent of restitution is collected from suspects, even after five years, according to a flier from the San Francisco DA’s office.
“It impacted the kids, long term,” said the former prosecutor. “It stayed with them for the rest of their lives.”
Sidney Hollar, a criminal defense attorney who represents juveniles accused of shoplifting, said that if Walgreens or another store seeks restitution, the judge is required to order it — regardless of the accused’s ability to pay.
And for a stretch of time in court, she said, there were “two Walgreens attorneys coming to every single case” watching as the line DAs — those in the courtroom, prosecuting cases — asked judges for restitution on their behalf.
“I imagine Walgreens is insured, so they do not have to go after 14-year-old poor Black and brown children,” she said. The restitution amounts, which she sometimes saw go into the thousands, were “a huge burden” for the defendants.
“My clients are poor children.”
ALTO attorneys were concerned “down to the penny” whether they could get money back from shoplifters, added another source close to the DA’s office.
Partnership began with Boudin
In 2021, Boudin praised the ALTO partnership when announcing charges against the man caught bicycling out of a Walgreens with an armful of shoplifted goods. While the viral video was a gift to the pro-recall effort, an ALTO executive actually wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, touting the close communication between his team, the police, and Boudin’s prosecutors.
Within the office, however, the reaction to ALTO was a mixed bag: Some prosecutors enjoyed the extra help, others said the relationship was suspicious.
“When they started to get involved in cases and prosecutions and identifying potential targets for prosecutions, people in management positions were uncomfortable with the role that ALTO had,” said a former prosecutor at the DA’s office.
ALTO would interview and gather witnesses to alleged incidents, for instance, passing them along to the DA’s office for use in a prosecution case.
That aid was “like music to my ears,” said another former prosecutor. ALTO attorneys expedited shoplifting cases by calling store witnesses or getting receipts, the prosecutor said, facilitating the prosecution.
Still, for some line DAs, it raised questions: Are ALTO attorneys part of the prosecution team? Are they giving witnesses independent legal advice?
“It’s a little bit of a black box,” said a former prosecutor, adding that ALTO could “influence witness testimony” or pressure a witness “to testify in a certain way,” knowing they are ultimately paid by and beholden to Walgreens.
That confusion, for many former prosecutors and those close to the DA’s office, was mirrored at the top, in Jenkins’s relationship with Carrion and Walgreens.
“It raises questions of whether or not they have undue influence,” the former prosecutor said, “and whether or not maintaining that close relationship is going to impact decision-making.”