Monday, August 10, 2009

The Does and Don'ts of Store Security Forces

Source of Information:

Chris McGoey is the President of Aegis Books, Inc., and does business as McGoey Security Consulting for the past twenty-four years. He has hosted the Crime Doctor Website online since 1996 as a community service by providing practical advice about security, crime, loss prevention, and avoiding liability. His office is located near Los Angeles, California.

Does Profiling Exist?

The media often asks me if retail store security personnel use “profiling” tactics as a means of determining which customers are most likely to steal. The answer is undeniably, yes.

Profiling is a Tool

The concept of shoplifter profiling is a proven loss prevention tool and is currently being practiced in most major retail stores by trained loss prevention or security staff. Does that seem shocking? It shouldn't, as long as it doesn't include the discriminatory practice of focusing on the race of the customer alone. Profiling is used everyday as a method for quickly focusing in on a person, a product line or a section of a store most likely to contribute to shoplifting. All investigative agencies including the police, FBI, and others have used profiling as a tool to narrow the field of possible suspects. Why shouldn't retail store security be able to do the same? Store and customer profiles are developed during day-to-day operation and by collecting and analyzing inventory data. This data provides both a quantitative and a qualitative basis for determining where, when, how, and by whom shoplifting is likely to occur in the future.

A progressive retailer has numerous inventory controls in effect and at several levels. Every store should know what departments and which product lines have the greatest inventory loss based on audits, product movement analysis reports, shoplifter apprehensions, and by finding signs of theft. Professional retail loss prevention personnel are trained to know what day of the week, what time of day, what product lines, and what department will have the most shoplifting activity. Armed with this data, loss prevention personnel set out to observe shopper “conduct” in the most active areas and during the most active times. Profiling like this makes perfect business sense because it is legal and a good business practice.

There are other types of profiling based on store apprehension histories and industry experience that has taught LP professionals who to "include" and who to "exclude" when scanning the store for potential shoplifters. For example, one profile is that people rarely shoplift while in the presence of their spouse, significant other, or parents. After scanning these persons they might quickly be bypassed as theft candidates. Shoplifting is a crime of opportunity and desire. Trained loss prevention staff will spend most of their time observing those customers whose conduct demonstrates both opportunity and desire. For example, a customer standing alone in a remote aisle, carrying a large empty shopping bag, and looking from side-to-side would be immediately suspicious until their conduct proves otherwise.

A customer wearing tattered shoes might appear suspicious in a self-service shoe department until their conduct disproved a lack of desire to steal. A customer walking across a store carrying a small electronic item partially concealed in the palm of their hand might seem suspicious until several opportunities passed to conceal the product. In contrast, a customer wearing tailored shorts and a t-shirt may have the desire to steal, but will have little opportunity to conceal a large item of merchandise they are carrying. Based on profiling and shopper conduct, the professional plain-clothes security officer will scan thousands of customers a day and determine that 99% of them are legitimate shoppers.

Surveillance is Necessary

Believe me, merchants don’t like monitoring their customers to prevent theft, but they know that it’s a matter of economic survival. Merchants know that closely watching customers is bad public relations if done crudely. However, the retail industry loses over 31.3-Billion dollars every year and shoplifting represents about one-third of it. Customer surveillance is limited to the public areas where there is no expectation of privacy as opposed to inside fitting rooms and restrooms that are considered private areas. Knowing that you are under surveillance is an uneasy feeling. No one likes being watched and being made to feel like you’re not trustworthy. However, if trained professionals do the surveillance properly, most people will never realize they were observed while shopping. A problem can arise when untrained or unqualified security, loss prevention or off-duty police undertake the task of store surveillance. The majority of the complaints of racial profiling that I have seen in retail stores have to do with the perception of being stalked throughout the store in an effort to intimidate them into leaving.

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling is an improper and illegal practice based on the mistaken belief that certain ethnic groups are more likely to shoplift than others. Because of this, misguided store employees will focus their surveillance time on the customer's “color” rather than “conduct”. Racial bias can blind store personnel and cause them to monitor only the ethic minorities and ignore the real source of their inventory losses. Racial profiling eventually leads to a pattern of false theft accusations, wrongful detentions, and harassment when no real probable cause exists. The result is that a particular ethic group will be made to feel like they can't be trusted and are unwelcome in the store. African Americans call it "shopping while black". Unless the wrongful conduct is corrected by management, civil rights violations will occur and false arrest lawsuits will follow and sorely damage the reputation of the retailer.

Customer surveillance based solely on the race of a customer is not only improper but is an ineffective method of controlling losses due to shoplifting. The thought of racial profiling is distasteful. A 1999 Gallup poll confirmed that 81% of Americans disapprove of the practice. Despite this belief, the same poll indicated that 75% of African American men said they had been victims of racial profiling while shopping.

Most major retailers have published policies against discriminatory acts but few that I've seen specifically address racial profiling by it's security personnel. Not surprisingly, incidents are occurring, which feeds the question of how much racial profiling exists in retail stores? For example, in one major department store the security staff used radio codes (code 3) as an alert anytime a black shopper came into the area. In another store, 90% of the shoplifting apprehensions were of ethnic customers where the store demographic reports only showed a 15% minority customer base. And in still another store, sales associates were told by security officers to call them anytime an ethnic minority entered their sales area.

Hiring, Training, Supervision

The only way to eliminate racial profiling is to prohibit it from the top. Retail stores need to have clearly defined and articulated policies against security staffers practicing racial profiling and must have a zero tolerance for abuse. The hiring process is a good time to screen out poor candidates that seem predisposed to prejudice. Comprehensive retail security training is absolutely necessary to assure that employees know how to do the job appropriately and understand the rules of conduct. Off-duty police officers working as security need training too. You can't assume that they understand the law or will act appropriately and fairly towards all customers especially in the retail setting. Off duty police officers must follow store rules when on the clock and not resort to street tactics when dealing with store customers. During the training phase new loss prevention personnel should be taught how to observe customer conduct and not base surveillance decisions solely on the race of the customer. Supervisors should always be on the lookout for signs of racial prejudice in day-to-day conversation and in written reports. Violations should be addressed swiftly. If racial profiling becomes a factor in security staff surveillance and detentions, it’s because store management didn’t care enough to correct the problem or instead chose to ratify the behavior.

For More Information:

Shoplifting Retail Racial Profiling

False Arrest Claims

A retail store makes a choice when it decides to apprehend and arrest those who attempt to steal their merchandise. Making that choice creates a legal responsibility of doing it correctly. This involves the proper hiring, training, and supervising those who make shoplifter apprehensions and arrests. In the retail loss prevention profession, the possibility of falsely accusing and detaining a customer for theft is a business reality that must be addressed.

In the United States, citizens value their civil liberties and constitutional rights and don't appreciate submitting to unlawful seizure and search. Because of this, there has been a legal trend of suing the retail store anytime a customer is wrongfully accused of shoplifting. In recognition of this, the retail security and loss prevention industry have developed six universally accepted steps to minimize the potential for a false arrest claim.

They are:
  1. You must see the shoplifter approach the merchandise
  2. You must see the shoplifter select the merchandise
  3. You must see the shoplifter conceal, convert or carry away the merchandise
  4. You must maintain continuous observation of the shoplifter
  5. You must observe the shoplifter fail to pay for the merchandise
  6. You must apprehend the shoplifter outside the store

If these six steps are followed, false arrest situations and subsequent lawsuits will be almost nonexistent. These six steps were designed to establish a high degree of probable cause for detention and arrest of a person suspected of shoplifting. If one of these steps is skipped, the chance for false arrest increases proportionately. If two or more steps are skipped, the store personnel are acting recklessly towards customers and are exposing the store unnecessarily to liability and false arrest claims. Remember, state law may not require this high degree of care for criminal prosecution.

The word "false arrest" is very distasteful to the retail industry, so it has created several alternate words to describe the event. Less offensive words are used instead like "non-productive detention" or "unproductive stop" or "investigative detention". All of these words have been used in place of false arrest so not to seemingly admit liability. Whatever the terminology, if you stop a customer that is not holding stolen merchandise, you have the potential for a false arrest claim.

Merchant Statute

Many states have enacted legislation to protect the merchant from such false arrest claims by allowing the store to make "investigative detentions" of a customer suspected of shoplifting. In these jurisdictions, the law allows certain latitude or "merchant's privilege" if the merchant has a reasonable belief that a customer has stolen merchandise. In many jurisdictions, law allows the merchant to detain a customer for a reasonable time, and in a reasonable manner, for the purpose recovering the stolen merchandise or for summoning the police.

The problem with these statutes is that they are vague as to what "reasonable" means and what the word "detain" means. Some merchants have overly relied on this statutory language to protect them from lawsuit only to discover later that it would not relieve them of liability.

Unreliable Witnesses

In most jurisdictions, a reasonable belief that someone has shoplifted does not include a stranger’s observation and report. Customers are often unreliable in what they report and it is considered unreasonable to detain and accuse someone of theft based solely on a customer observation. Besides, the customer and shoplifter could be working together to set up the store for a false arrest claim. Untrained sales associates can also be unreliable in their observations. Many store chains do not allow apprehensions on the word of a sales associate alone.

Reasonable Detentions

While detaining someone, you must do so in a reasonable manner. Tackling and injuring a customer in the parking lot over suspected petty theft might be deemed excessive, especially if no other means of detention were attempted first. Detentions must also be for a reasonable time period. Holding someone for three hours while you investigate a check, credit card, coupon, or refund fraud attempt is excessive. Some jurisdictions have a problem with police response times that may take over two hours to respond to your store. This business reality must be factored into the store policy of detaining shoplifters or releasing them after recovering the merchandise.

Hiring & Training

The best way to limit false arrest situations is hiring, training, and supervising competent staff. It is usually considered negligent management to have a policy of apprehension and arrest of shoplifters if the store personnel have no training on how to do so correctly. It is also negligent management if you fail to supervise loss prevention staff and their reports that indicates violations of company policy, violation of the civil rights of customers, or use of excessive force.

Use of Force

It is usually considered negligence if a store employee uses excessive force when apprehending a suspected shoplifter. It requires special training to understand how to routinely apprehend shoplifters while only using minimal force. Tackling, punching, and verbal abuse of shoplifters are never acceptable. Excessive or unreasonable use of handcuffs, leg restraints, chokeholds, or pain compliance holds are also inappropriate when dealing with those suspected of retail theft.

You run the risk of a false arrest claim when you:

  • Don’t observe the customer approach a display
  • Don’t observe the merchandise being selected from the display
  • Don’t see the merchandise being concealed, carried away or converted (i.e. eaten etc)
  • Don’t maintain continuous observation and the shoplifter dumps the item
  • Don’t watch the check stand and verify the non-payment of the item
  • Don’t detain the shoplifter outside the store (or at least past the last register)
  • Don’t detain only the person directly responsible for the theft

To avoid other related claims:

  • Approach from the front (so the shoplifter doesn’t think you’re a robber)
  • Have at least one witness of the same sex present at all times
  • Have at least one more backup than the number of shoplifters
  • Clearly identify yourself as the store representative or security officer
  • State the reason for the detention and ask for the item back
  • Don’t be afraid to immediately disengage and apologize if you make a mistake
  • Listen for spontaneous utterances (i.e. "I forgot to pay for it")
  • Closely escort the shoplifter to a private office
  • Do not chase the shoplifter through the store
  • Always be polite and professional even if the shoplifter is not
  • Do not use excessive force (i.e. double lock handcuffs)
  • Do not make threats or exchange insults
  • Accommodate reasonable medical and handicap requests
  • Process the arrest swiftly according to store policy
  • Save, tag, and photograph the stolen merchandise as evidence
  • Cooperate with the police and appear in court, if necessary

For More Information:

Shoplifting False Arrest


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James said...

I am a small store owner, in a different country, I am not sure if the same rule applies but thanks for bringing this up. I will use it as a point of discussion with my staff. Shrinkage has been increasing these days. I even bought many loss prevention devices to help minimize it.

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