Violent confrontations with shoplifters rare, but can be deadly

12/23/2012 12:00 AM

12/22/2012 11:52 PM

At least two store clerks have died in conflicts with shoplifters in Wichita in the past.

Several others have been hurt – including an off-duty police officer who was shot in the head – but the number of violent confrontations involving shoplifters is small.

Police say hundreds of people are arrested for shoplifting every year in Wichita, and most arrests occurred without violence. But retail safety experts say nearly every shoplifting arrest includes one potentially explosive element: a confrontation between a store employee and the shoplifter.

“The best way to catch a person is to catch him with the goods, and that involves a confrontation,” said Dan Jablonski, a retired FBI agent who is now a business consultant. “It’s a predicament. Once he gets away with something, you may not be able to prove that he actually took it.”

Jablonski and others say it’s up to each retailer to decide how much force store employees should use when dealing with uncooperative shoplifting suspects. The issue arose last month when a J.C. Penney security guard was stabbed in the parking lot of Towne East Square after confronting a man and a woman suspected of stealing about $200 worth of merchandise.

Like most states, Kansas affords some legal leeway to employees trying to detain shoplifters. The state’s unlawful restraint law contains an exemption that says, “Any merchant … who has probable cause to believe that a person has … wrongfully taken, or is about to wrongfully take merchandise from a mercantile establishment, may detain such person on the premises or in the immediate vicinity thereof, in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable period of time for the purpose of investigating the circumstances of such possession.”

Safety experts say the definition of “reasonable manner” may depend on the circumstances.

“If have a senior citizen, a lady in her 80s, say, stealing cigarettes, you deal with that differently than if you have a young man or young woman who’s obviously working in cahoots with two or three other people,” said Charles Sennewald, a California corporate security expert who specializes in shoplifting prevention.

Barbara Staib, spokeswoman for the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, said it would be a mistake to try to second-guess the actions of the J.C. Penney guard.

“You can’t Monday morning quarterback,” she said. “Every situation is completely different.”

In general, Staib said, there are two types of shoplifters: amateurs who are usually nonviolent when confronted and professionals who may be more likely to resist.

“That’s a completely different animal,” she said of the professionals. “Those people are more prone to being violent, so it’s a much more dangerous situation. It’s impossible for a loss prevention officer to know the difference.

“All they know is, ‘They’re in my store and they’re stealing.’ ”

The shoplifting cases that have turned violent in Wichita since 1984 have involved suspects from a variety of backgrounds.

• On Dec. 3, 1984, Andrew J. Murray, an administration of justice student at Wichita State University, was shot in the chest after he chased a shoplifter into the parking lot of an Alco Discount Store at 2487 S. Seneca. A Crime Stoppers tip more than a year later led to the arrest of the shooter, David J. Neighbors, 32, a Wichita firefighter. He told police after his arrest that he went to the store to buy a pair of pliers and decided to shoplift when he realized he didn’t have any money with him. He said he always carried the gun for protection. He committed suicide three days after he was charged with second-degree murder.
• On Jan. 9, 1987, an off-duty Wichita police officer working as a security guard at a Dillons store at 3211 S. Seneca was shot when he tried to arrest a man for stealing a package of shredded ham. The bullet grazed the officer’s head. The suspect, Terry Roy Holman of Houston, was arrested after exchanging gunfire with an officer who chased him into a nearby field. Police said at the time that they had difficulty verifying Holman’s identity because he was known by several other names. He was convicted of aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer and is serving a sentence of 30 years to life at the Lansing Correctional Facility.
• On Nov. 23, 1991, Donna Pauls, 53, was dragged nearly 500 feet as she tried to stop a man who had taken 15 cartons of cigarettes from an Albertsons store at Harry and Georgetown. Richard E. Stone, who was on probation for heroin possession, was arrested in the nearby Hilltop neighborhood about an hour after the leaving the scene. He was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving a sentence of 15 years to life at the Wichita Work Release Center.

Security experts say there are six steps that have to be followed when making a successful shoplifting arrest. The formula involves observing the person select the merchandise, observing the person conceal the merchandise and observing the person leave the store without paying. It’s the sixth step — approaching the shoplifter outside the store — that causes problems.

Sennewald, who helped develop the six steps when he co-authored the book “Shoplifting” in 1992, said it’s up to each retailer to decide how far to go in the sixth step. Some stores aggressively pursue all shoplifters, while others may ask employees to avoid confrontation at all costs. Every store should have a written policy, he said.

Sennewald said he doesn’t encourage stores to engage in violence, but he said he understands why many stores say it is acceptable to use force against a shoplifter when the shoplifter initiates the use of force.

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