Two young men were detained at a national retail store in Dearborn, Mich., asked to hand over the sweaters they were wearing and then were handcuffed. The men hadn't stolen the sweaters or anything else. In another Dearborn store, Frederick Finley, died after retail security personnel restrained him in a headlock. He was shopping with his girlfriend's preteen daughter, who was suspected of shoplifting. And in separate Texas incidents, two men died after one was allegedly hog-tied and another placed in a chokehold by a store security officer.

Such high-profile cases in which customers are falsely imprisoned or killed by overzealous security personnel aren't limited to Michigan and Texas. Retailers in numerous states are contending with lawsuits — racial profiling, false arrest and wrongful death — stemming from aggressive store security personnel trying to thwart shoplifters.

It's no surprise retailers want to curb shoplifting. They lost just over $29 billion in 1999 to inventory shrinkage — 32.7% of which was attributed to shoplifting — according to the 2000 National Retail Security Survey (authored by Richard C. Hollinger, University of Florida, Gainsville). “If you don't get aggressive, your business walks out the door,” says Chris McGoey of McGoey Security Consulting, San Francisco. Yet some aggressive tactics, especially profiling, are giving some retailers a starring role in the media spotlight and getting them into legal stews.

The right staff

Security experts believe many of the recent high-profile incidents stem from combative, poorly trained employees, who don't understand how legitimate shoppers behave, and how to properly identify shoplifters, apprehend them and diffuse tense situations. “It sounds so simple, but the trick is to hire good people, pay them decently and train and supervise them,” comments McGoey.

Is it ever appropriate to jump shoplifting suspects and wrestle them to the ground? “That's only appropriate in self-defense — if a guy has a gun or a baseball bat,” answers Bill DiMaria, president of Kent Security of Palm Beach, Fla. DiMaria, a former plainclothes narcotics officer with the NYPD, says getting physical is a sign of a poorly trained store detective or someone reacting out of fear. “If a guard is outnumbered sometimes he reasons, ‘I'm going to come on strong and tough, throw them on the ground and cuff them, and then everyone will back down.’ That's totally the wrong thing to do,” DiMaria adds. Simply having one more security guard present than there are suspects during an apprehension usually eliminates the need for force, say security consultants.

Those who make the worst loss prevention specialists are the bouncers, bigots, bullies and wanna-be cops, according to McGoey. “In the old days there were some Neanderthals working security who used race as a determinant of whether people would steal. Now, people are more astute, but there are still some of those dinosaurs — hard-core racists who believe certain groups are inherently dishonest — left,” he says. Weeding out such types is critical in maintaining a civil security force and avoiding lawsuits and bad PR.

Profile conduct

Although profiling has come under fire and has become a dirty word, it does have a place in the retail environment if the criterion is not racial. If, for instance, store audits indicate certain items — cosmetics or small electronic gadgets, for instance — are disappearing at an alarming rate at a certain hour of the day, it's okay to keep a close eye on that particular department. It's also fine to profile based on conduct. “You're looking for differences, oddities, something that doesn't fit,” says DiMaria. “That's the legitimate way to profile.”

He offers the example of two men, wearing big raincoats, walking into a store on a hot summer day in South Florida. A smart security officer will watch them because they could use the coats to conceal merchandise. “You profile the way people act, their mannerisms, their movement, and whether they're looking for security cameras or carrying booster boxes,” says DiMaria. “And if you see a pattern of people picking up random things without looking at them — clothes not consistent with their size — and they're working their way to the door, you know you've got a bingo,” he says. “You position some help by the door so when they bolt, you're there to impede their progress.”

As with dangerous high-speed police chases, sometimes it's better — safer — to simply let shoplifters escape. “Some stores only value an employee by the number of apprehensions they make. That's wrong,” comments DiMaria. He points out the dangers and potential liability associated with chasing a fleeing suspect who runs into traffic and gets killed or ends up knocking down or injuring an elderly person or pregnant woman. “Big problem,” he says. “Sometimes it's better they get away with a $20 item. It's part of the cost of doing business.”

Even in situations where shoplifters are caught, some retailers simply retrieve the merchandise and send the thieves on their way. “Offending the customer is a chief concern and there are a number of retailers, because of that and legal liabilities, that have a policy of not prosecuting shoplifters,” says Jonathan Lusher, senior vice president for consulting and inspectional services for IPC International Corp., a Bannockburn, Ill.-based shopping center security firm. “They don't want to take a chance of wrongfully accusing customers of wrongdoing.”

Prevention vs. apprehension

Good hiring, training and supervision of both store detectives and sales associates, say security experts, can go a long way in preventing theft and eliminating liability cases, false arrests, and peeved customers. Hiring minimum wage employees and providing zero training might offer short-term savings, but, as DiMaria points out, “you make one mistake and your liability insurance goes up.” Moreover, a retailer can face terrible publicity, feel forced to write a check to settle an incident quietly, or become embroiled in a lawsuit — all costly resolutions. “Win, lose or draw, you're going to be paying a lot of attorney fees if you go into litigation,” notes DiMaria.

Store detectives should be educated how legitimate shoppers behave and what constitutes theft. (According to one old security adage, ‘If you didn't see it, it didn't happen.’) They should know the proper techniques for identifying and apprehending suspects (see sidebar), and they must be able to quickly recognize unacceptable behavior.

In addition, even after training, security teams need ongoing supervision to ensure that store policy and procedures are being followed and that personnel aren't engaged in improper behavior. One way to do this involves monitoring staffers' reports and, if video surveillance is being used, reviewing tapes to be sure security personnel aren't focusing on particular racial or ethnic groups.

Sales associates, too, play a security role. They should be trained to acknowledge and greet everyone entering a department. The bad guys then know they've been noticed and can possibly be identified and likely will leave. And it's not a bad idea for an undercover store detective to deliberately blow his cover by approaching a suspicious person and saying, “Hi. I'm with security. Even though this isn't my department, maybe I can help you pick an item.”

“You're not accusing them of anything, but just being helpful. To the bad guys, you're telling them, ‘I recognize you, know what you're up to and I'm here.’ You've stopped the theft, there's no litigation, and nothing that can erupt into a problem on the sales floor in front of other customers,” says DiMaria. “There are lots of ways to skin a cat — not just apprehension, but also prevention.”

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based writer.

An ounce of prevention

Chris McGoey of McGoey Security Consulting, San Francisco, offers guidelines to avoid claims of false arrest and detainment. His list of must-do's includes:

  • See the shoplifter approach, select and conceal merchandise
  • Maintain uninterrupted observation of the shoplifter
  • See the shoplifter fail to pay for the merchandise
  • Approach the shoplifter outside the store

If carried out properly, apprehensions don't have to be aggressive, physical encounters. “If you do it right, it works flawlessly,” McGoey notes. Here's his modus operandi for managing and taking shoplifters into custody.

  • Approach the person from the front (so the shoplifter doesn't mistake you for a robber)
  • Have at least one witness — of the same sex as the shoplifter — present at all times
  • Have at least one more backup security person than there are number of shoplifters in a group
  • Clearly identify yourself as the store's security officer
  • State the reason for the detention and ask for the stolen items back
  • Don't be afraid to immediately disengage and apologize if you make a mistake
  • Listen for spontaneous utterances — “I forgot to pay,” for instance — of admission of guilt or acknowledgment that the shoplifter failed to pay
  • Closely escort shoplifters to a private office
  • Don't chase shoplifters through the store
  • Always be polite and professional, even if the shoplifter isn't
  • Don't use excessive force or make threats or exchange insults
  • Accommodate reasonable requests related to a person's medical condition or a handicap
  • Process the arrest swiftly, according to store policy
  • Save, tag, and photograph stolen merchandise as evidence
  • Cooperate with the police and be willing to appear in court, if necessary.
    — Elyse Umlauf-Garneau