ASTORIA, Queens (PIX11) – In an effort to keep suspects out of the criminal justice system, the Queens District Attorney, in partnership with the NYPD, is using a different approach to stop repeat offenders from stealing from small businesses and harassing staff members or customers.

The new program is already in Jamaica and Flushing and just launched in Astoria.

The Astoria Merchants Business Improvement Program allows merchants to contact the 114th precinct when a repeat offender returns to an establishment.

“It gives us the opportunity to alert recidivists that their persistent behavior will not be tolerated,” Chief Christine Bastedenbeck of Patrol Borough Queens North said.

A trespass notice is given to the individual as a warning.

“If you chose to ignore that warning, you could be subject to arrest,” Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said.

Bob Battipaglia’s family has owned Grand Wine & Liquor in the neighborhood since the 1930s, but once the pandemic started, so did the problems. 

“As a liquor store we became a magnet for homeless people and petty thieves,” Battipaglia said.

He witnessed bottles being stolen right from his shelves, but last year he’d had enough and confronted two people. One of them had a knife.

“I followed them out,” Battipaglia said. “I wrestled the bag away. I got threatened by the knife, so I stayed away from that.”

Officials said the program pinpoints a small number of individuals who they say are responsible for the vast majority of harm done to local businesses and the people they serve.

The District Attorney’s office said the program’s launch in Jamaica and Flushing has been successful. Since its launch in 2021, 23 trespass notices have been issued with three arrests made.

Battipaglia is optimistic it will work in Astoria too.

“I’m extremely hopeful,” Battipaglia added. “I’m just so glad that they responded to our needs.”

Gail Gualotuna is the owner of her family business, Astoria Express, running private school buses and she feels differently.

“In my circumstances, they’re minors and [that’s] where it becomes tricky,” Gualotuna said. “They get released and then they come back, so it’s like they’re taunting us.”

Gualotuna said the minors have caused more than $100,000 worth of damage to her busses by breaking into her lot, driving the busses, and breaking windows and other bus parts.

In surveillance video, one minor can be heard telling another to keep their hoods on in case there are cameras.

So far, 24 retail establishments have signed up for the program in Astoria. Gualotuna plans to join as well.

Merchants can sign up for the program by contacting the 114th precinct.