Should I have chased the shoplifter?
May 5, 2016 12:36 AM   Subscribe

Two days ago, I walked past a shop and its anti-theft system started beeping loudly. I looked into the shop, and a guy was walking out. A shop assistant turned to look, and the guy ran. She immediately chased him. Hoping that I could help, I joined the chase.

We chased the shoplifter for about half a block, before he "gave up" and threw down the t-shirt that he had lifted from the shop before running off. Seeing this, the shop assistant and I stopped. My thoughts then were "ok, they got their stolen thing back. Should be good." I gave the shop assistant, and the colleague who came after, a nod as they picked up the recovered item, and I went my merry way.

Should I have minded my own business? Should we have totally chased the guy down?

I keep playing back the incident in my head and I was wondering if we should have totally caught up to the shoplifter - him throwing the t-shirt away gave me lizard-tail vibes - could he have something more valuable and the t-shirt was only a distraction?

I also didn't think of safety - mine or the people around - until after the fact :(

In addition, I didn't think to shout "shoplifter! stop!" or something like that - I don't think the shop assistant did as well.

This is in Vancouver, BC, downtown. Would appreciate suggestions what I could do if I should encounter a case like this again please. Thanks!
posted by TrinsicWS to Human Relations (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
God. Someone stealing a shirt is not a crime I want someone to possibly face jail for depending on their history. Different story if it was assault or a handbag. But a shop's product? They're probably insured and I wouldn't want to be a vigilante.

I don't condone theft, but I kinda feel sorry for someone in that position and wouldn't want to be part of a domino effect of life getting worse. I'd leave that to others. Like the cops.
posted by taff at 12:58 AM on May 5, 2016 [18 favorites]

My opinion is that neither you or the shop assistant are required to put yourselves in a potentially dangerous situation for a t-shirt or for anything else this person may have taken.

What would you have done if you had caught up to them? Tackle them? What if they pulled out a knife?

Once you see the shop assistant go after the guy I do think it is a good and a responsible thing to do to follow behind to make sure the shop assistant is safe and does not require assistance, given that they are already throwing themselves into the situation. Beyond that, your actual help may come later if you are able to act as a witness, describe the person, what car they got into etc.
posted by vacapinta at 12:59 AM on May 5, 2016 [48 favorites]

No, you should not have chased him but given you did you were both right to stop without physically touching him. IANAL and TINLA but we were taught that doing so could put us at legal risk. Nd of course physical risk.

I get your impulse and you were kind of acting on the store staff directions. But they should not have chased either.

I worked in retail for a decade. We were taught that no amount of goods or money were worth our lives or those of our customers. We were to hand over cash if asked, to let goods go and if safe, to try and remember physical details to give the police an ID.

But we're all human and hey, I think it's great your impulse is to help a bystander. Just save it for innocent people in harms way rather than t-shirts.
posted by kitten magic at 12:59 AM on May 5, 2016 [13 favorites]

just to clarify, by acting on her directions I mean, store staff member chased so you chased to help. Followed her lead prob better wording.
posted by kitten magic at 1:01 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

neither you or the shop assistant are required to put yourselves in a potentially dangerous situation for a t-shirt or


there is all kinds of grey area in a dilemma such as this ... until you consider how little is at stake.
posted by philip-random at 1:03 AM on May 5, 2016 [14 favorites]

You did the right thing, and I find odd that other posters would condone theft just because the product stolen is of little value.

The thief actually got away lightly IMHO
posted by Kwadeng at 1:14 AM on May 5, 2016 [21 favorites]

There's local and store/shopping center based laws and guidelines for what you can and can't do when there's someone stealing your product. Of course it's all based first in local laws, then the shopping center has their own rules, and finally the store itself has its own policy.

Since you're unfamiliar with the policies, I'd stay out of it unless someone was in physical danger or calling for help.

Stores allow for a certain amount of "shrink" (stolen or damaged items)and plan on it happening. Of course retailers do everything they can to prevent it, but it's not your business as a random citizen.

It wasn't an innocent person being mugged or a purse being snatched. So while I understand your heart was in the right place to help, the better thing would have been to alert security if they were nearby or to ring the police if the situation seemed unsafe and to possibly monitor the situation from a safe distance.

I worked at a store in the mall (in the US) and our store's/mall's guidelines were that once someone left a store, we could not chase them. We had to alert security or the police. We also couldn't physically touch a customer, but could ask them if they wanted to pay for an item or have us "hold it at the counter" if we thought they were stealing. Or to call security.

It was both for our safety and the customer's safety not to mention the safety of the retailer from a lawsuit.
posted by Crystalinne at 1:18 AM on May 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

It boils down to an easy question: Are you willing to give your life to protect the property of the shopowner?
posted by yoyo_nyc at 1:32 AM on May 5, 2016 [31 favorites]

Was it a small/independent shop? Because like other commenters I worked a LOT of retail jobs, and every corporate chain I've worked for has had strict policies about NOT chasing shoplifters out the door. Trust me, as a rather vigilante type myself, I would be tempted; and I have confronted many a shoplifter from within the store, but chasing them down really isn't safe.

And Kwadeng, we aren't condoning theft (at least I assume most of us are not). We are just pointing forth context and perspective. It isn't that the theft of a small item is morally okay; its that the theft of a small item is not worth risking one's safety and/or a lawsuit over.
posted by celtalitha at 1:34 AM on May 5, 2016 [29 favorites]

Putting aside the issue of the shop itself: I once chased down someone who robbed me (stole my iPad on the Montreal metro, got it back, guy broke free and ran). The cops gently but sternly warned me to never do that again, and once the adrenaline rush subsided, I wondered why the hell I'd chased the guy — he could have had a knife, he could have punched me, I was putting myself in physical danger for a piece of hardware. Not worth it.

You reacted in the moment, and I did the same, but no, you probably shouldn't have, and I shouldn't have either.
posted by third word on a random page at 2:12 AM on May 5, 2016 [11 favorites]

The store's merchandise is insured and replaceable. It is not worth risking injury to yourself or others over.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:24 AM on May 5, 2016 [13 favorites]

No. If they assaulted someone, it's a different matter. A t-shirt? No. Go read the Panama Papers if you want to fight crime.
posted by history is a weapon at 3:17 AM on May 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

It was unecessary. But don't beat yourself up over it. Give some thought to what scenarios really need your involvement, what scenarios just need a witness (or someone paying attention, perhaps ready to act if needed), and what scenarios need bystanders to actively leave. In my experience, most events are in the middle category.
posted by zennie at 3:54 AM on May 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

In analyzing your own behavior in this type of situation, I think it is a useful exercise to reflect upon how your response corresponds to Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development.
posted by fairmettle at 4:20 AM on May 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another retail veteran here, and yeah, don't chase shoplifters. Hell, I'd say don't even accuse people of shoplifting to their face, and don't tell an employee unless you actually saw them stick merchandise down their pants. I think zennie's comment is on the right track.
posted by clorox at 4:21 AM on May 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

You did the right thing, and I find odd that other posters would condone theft just because the product stolen is of little value.
If the item in question was a $2000 laptop I'd say the same thing.
posted by clorox at 4:31 AM on May 5, 2016 [15 favorites]

I can easily imagine the situation playing out like this: a shoplifter bolts out of a store, with an employee in pursuit. A concerned passerby witnesses and joins the chase. Everyone else on the scene stops to stare, trying to figure out what's happening and whether they too should get involved... except for one nondescript shopper, who winks at the security camera, stuffs the nearest rack of merchandise down their pants, and walks off the scene before anyone notices.

There are situations where you can help stop or prevent a crime in progress - generally when the person about to commit the crime doesn't think anyone's going to notice or confront them. In these cases, often something as small as you saying "hey, what are you doing?!" can thwart the person. But at the point where there's a chase, your involvement is only going to add to the chaos.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:41 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

You did the right thing, and I find odd that other posters would condone theft just because the product stolen is of little value. The thief actually got away lightly IMHO

posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:47 AM on May 5, 2016

The value of the item is besides the point. This was a stupid thing to do. You are not a law enforcement officer, and this was not a situation where anyone was in imminent danger such that getting involved would be justifiable compared to the potential risk. The ways this could have gone very badly (completely out of proportion to any possible upside) are legion -- the thief pulls a weapon, or you attempt to apprehend them and in the ensuing scuffle someone is seriously injured, etc.

In a lot of cities, even the police are required to not chase criminals in some circumstances (almost precisely these, in fact -- that there isn't an imminent threat to anyone, and that the chase itself might endanger lives). It's bad enough when the police disobey this (or don't have these rules) and create more chaos than is warranted because they can't stand to "lose" by backing off. The last thing this world needs is untrained civilians deciding to do the same.
posted by tocts at 5:05 AM on May 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

I will come right out and say that I'm not going to set myself up as tee-shirt enforcer.

Why was this guy stealing?
Maybe he was an asshole.
Maybe he was showing off.
Maybe he has some kind of mental issue which leads him to take risks or gives him poor impulse control.
Maybe he is being abused in some other area of his life and stealing the shirt is where it comes out.
Maybe he wanted to give his dad a birthday present and was really broke. (People do steal for this kind of reason.)
Maybe he has very little access to a washer and dryer and is stealing to have a clean shirt. (I knew someone who did this.)
Maybe his life is utterly fucked up, he has no money and no possibility of things improving anytime soon and he's gotten in the habit of stealing. Most of the people I've known who shoplifted as adults fell into this category - they aren't just taking tee shirts, they're taking food and soap and so on, but once you start with needing to steal your dinner you take other stuff too if you need it.)

Above are all reasons that people I have encountered have shoplifted. I have worked retail. I have dealt with asshole shoplifters. But I am very, very hesitant to go all Hanging Judge Jeffries on someone who steals something, particularly something trivial. Propery isn't actually God in this society yet, and we live around a lot of people who are miserable now and are going to stay miserable.

I'm not saying "throw wide the shop doors and then go take a nap", but honestly I am baffled by people who so desperately want to punish some guy who didn't even get away with the damn shirt.

Also, how were you going to hold onto him until the cops arrived? I'm not sure that I could hold a smaller person if they were really mortally determined to escape me, and I'm pretty sure that they'd be, like, whipping their head into my face, kicking, biting, etc. Were you going to incite strangers to help you? I'm not wild about that, either, because I would rather not live in a society where random strangers are all "help me hold this person, I am asserting that he is a bad bad criminal" and everyone assists.
posted by Frowner at 5:18 AM on May 5, 2016 [25 favorites]

I would say you did the right thing and by taking any different action events could have spiralled out of control. Leave it those who are trained to deal with these things to sort it out.
posted by mcjimmyv at 5:32 AM on May 5, 2016

A friend of mine did this and got his ass kicked because the guy knew how to fight and my friend didn't think through what would happen if he caught up to him.

What would be your game plan next time if the person turned into an alley and couldn't get out, or if you caught up to them? What would you do if they had a knife, gun or picked up a rock? That might sound like catastrophizing the situation, but remember cops do an immense amount of training because people who commit crimes do not let themselves get caught easily a lot of the time and these situations happen.
posted by scrittore at 5:47 AM on May 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

My biggest concern in this case is that you seem to be feeling unwarranted anxiety after the case, even as everything turned out for the best for everyone: you, the shop attendant, the store owner and to some extent the shoplifter.

While you may want to rethink engaging in a chase in the unlikely event you find yourself in the same situation again, it seems to me that you were right to do so this time. You read the situation right: the risk level was low. I would focus on accepting that's what's done is done - and hey, you helped that shop assistant.
posted by Milau at 5:50 AM on May 5, 2016

Right here in town, some years ago, a shoplifter was chased by a young grocery store clerk. The clerk caught up to the shoplifter. In a panic, the shoplifter whipped out his knife and stabbed the clerk. Fatally stabbed. That kid died over some milk. Don't chase shoplifters, because desperate people do desperate things.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 6:02 AM on May 5, 2016 [13 favorites]

Hell no. Not even if you work there.

I came here to tell a similar story as Grlnxtdr. Not far from where I work, a CVS clerk chased a shoplifter and ended up dying out on the curb after he got a knife through his heart. They never caught the guy who stabbed him.
posted by bondcliff at 6:12 AM on May 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

And one more anecdote, with identifying details changed.

I know someone who has a disability and a physical difference from the norm which makes it difficult to get and hold a job. This person has been in and out of homelessness and generally does not have access to the medical care they need, and their homelessness has made accessing the few remaining state benefits available to single people without children very difficult.

This person was attempting to steal some food when they were tackled hard to the ground by store security and badly hurt. They were taken to jail, where they were harassed by guards and threatened with violence. They now have a lot of restrictions on them in terms of probation, etc, which has made their life much much harder. They live in fear of going back to jail and facing the same violence and harassment that they did when initially held.

My point being, the consequences of capture and arrest may actually be pretty grotesque and unfair in our society. You might not approve of them if you knew of them. I don't want to get the cops to arrest someone over a tee shirt and then they get beaten in jail or shot on the spot, or they get run through Homeland Security and deported away from their family, or they lose their scholarship or they are held in jail and lose their precarious, shitty job, etc etc. I would not feel good about myself if I had called John Law on someone over a tshirt and it destroyed their life.
posted by Frowner at 6:22 AM on May 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

[A few comments deleted -- please don't turn this into a discussion, thanks.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 7:01 AM on May 5, 2016

Best case: you catch the ne'er-do-well, he surrenders quietly, and sits meekly to wait for the police to come. The police probably don't charge him with anything, because the cost of the stolen goods was less than $50.

Worst case #1: You catch the ne'er-do-well, he pulls a knife, and stabs you. Your health insurance refuses to pay for it because they think the store's liability coverage should cover it, and vice versa.

Worst case #2: You catch and tackle the ne'er-do-well, who splits his lip open and concusses himself as his head hits the sidewalk. The police arrive and you're arrested for assault and battery. The thief sues you for damages, and calls the store clerk as a witness, who testifies "Yup, TrinsicWS tackled him" and the prosecuting attorney cuts him off before he can finish the sentence explaining why. You are ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution.

I don't see any possible way you come out better by chasing the guy.
posted by Mayor West at 7:04 AM on May 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Unless you were employed as a security guard for the store, I cannot imagine why you would feel justified in chasing someone who stole a t-shirt. If anything, you could have called for security. No one's life was at stake, no one was being physically harmed. Your intervention did not save a life. In my opinion, putting yourself in that position was reckless and inappropriate.
posted by Gray Skies at 7:15 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it makes sense to limit your attempts to physically prevent or catch criminals to those incidents involving another person's health, life, or safety. I think chasing someone puts you at risk and, to a much lesser extent, puts others at risk, and it just isn't worth potentially having a physical confrontation just to catch a shoplifter. This situation was maybe a bit different because the shop assistant already gave chase and it may have made sense to have someone else along to lessen the risk of her being assaulted.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 7:23 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

So, I do not know how true this is, but my older sister claims that when she worked at Barnes & Noble, the store had a very strict policy for its employees that if someone shoplifts, you just let them walk out. No ifs, no ands, no buts. You do NOT endanger yourself. I guess the liability is much worse for the business if their employee gets hurt than if they just lose some inventory?

Now, Barnes and Noble does not exactly attract a dangerous crowd to begin with, so if that's their official policy, I imagine stores with more dangerous/criminal clientele (and especially the large corporate chains) are even MORE likely to have that policy.
posted by quincunx at 7:50 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Should I have minded my own business? Should we have totally chased the guy down?

You should have minded your own business. You should not have chased after the guy, and you should not have chased him until you caught up with him.

The reasons you should have done none of those things is: You are not trained to do them. You have no idea what you should/shouldn't do when you catch up with the guy, and all that adrenaline bouncing through your system will likely make you do something stupid or illegal.
posted by 23skidoo at 7:56 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to criticize what you did in the moment-- we always think we know just what to do in such a moment, but it's amazing what our reactions are in unusual or emergency situations. However, I would caution you in the future to take a beat to think before acting.

I guess I don't understand feeling as though you could/should have done more. You aren't a police officer, and you haven't mentioned any special training that would qualify you to hold, tackle, or question this guy. That would be terribly unsafe. I mean, what's the plan? I'm sure you didn't have one, and that's how people get hurt or killed. This person could have been armed, and probably had more of a plan than you did--and more motive to escape than you did to catch him.

I absolutely make a distinction between items from a retail store and human safety. Protecting people is noble, protecting retail items, not matter how valuable, is not. That's just a matter of personal opinion, though-- I can see from these responses that it varies.

In the US we have had terribly tragic incidents wherein people see themselves as enforcers and young kids wind up dead. I'm thinking of the Trayvon Martin case. Clearly what you did does not rise to this level, but there is a reason citizen vigilantism is troubling. When you don't have all the facts or the necessary training, you can act rashly and apply your own biases.

In fact, I agree with others that you should not have done anything at all, except maybe call police, film the incident, or stay nearby to make sure the employee was safe. That's hindsight, though.

I would be chewing over this incident too-- make sure you are taking good care of yourself because when your body puts out that much adrenaline it needs some time to recover.
posted by kapers at 8:14 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Should I have minded my own business?

Should we have totally chased the guy down?

Other people have done well covering why it's not worth getting stabbed/shot or potentially injuring someone, even a thief, over a t-shirt. It's not that theft is "ok" or condoned, it's just that vigilante justice isn't the best way to deal with it. So let's talk about situations where it might make sense to get involved.

First off, the store clerk didn't ask for your help. Maybe the store has insurance that will cover injury to their employees and/or pay their legal fees in case the shoplifter gets caught and then files battery or unlawful imprisonment charges. But chances are, that insurance wouldn't cover you, so you're opening yourself up to liability.

In general, I am of the belief that no thing is worth bodily harm to another person. But, I'm privileged enough that I could replace pretty much any necessary item that someone could take from me. Maybe the store clerk should have chased him down if this was a question of an item of value, and the clerk would be on the hook for it somehow (maybe the clerk was the store owner, and their insurance isn't great, etc.). So, maybe if the store clerk had asked for your help, it might have made sense to join (but again, not over a t-shirt).

The equation is obviously different if the criminal was causing harm to someone. That's where you have I think a moral duty to *at least* call for help, and if you are going to get physically involved yourself, you should make the call before jumping in (because what if you fail?). Obviously, there's no moral duty to place yourself in harms way for another person, but choosing to jump in in to prevent harm to a person (or an animal, probably) is on a totally different level than the stupidity (sorry) of running down a shoplifter.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:31 AM on May 5, 2016

Speaking generally, you have no legal right to physically assault someone in the defense of another's property. In fact, in many U.S. states, even the storeowner could not have done much once the person had gotten well clear of the store ("shopkeeper's privilege" permits brief detention on or very near store property on reasonable suspicion of theft). The law quite correctly concludes that it's a bad idea to license people to attack others except in cases of actual risk to human life. If you had tackled the guy, he could have sued you. And rightly so. Not because shoplifting is cool or harmless, but because people need to save their violence for the defense of something truly irreplaceable. Not a t-shirt. Not even a diamond.
posted by praemunire at 8:38 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yuck. You chased a random person down the street in order to...what? Protect the 'property' of the owner of the store/chain? All over a most-definitely sweatshop labor-produced garment. For a store owner who assuredly pays their employees as little as humanly possible (probably necessitating food stamps), just to assure their own increasing profit. During a time when corporate/banking crimes are completely ignored. At a time when inequality is skyrocketing, etc. etc. I won't go on and on. But you stepped in to symbolically protect that? Now? Even if there was zero risk to my life, nothing could compel me to be on the side of 'property protection' for a store, in the face of everything we know about our economic system. No way, no how.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:38 AM on May 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

I mean, personally, as someone who has been poor (or at least broke enough that stealing seemed like an attractive option), and as someone who has worked in stores in the past, AND as someone who has seen the bad outcomes from people having a hunch that shoplifting was happening:

Ew, no. Don't get involved.

It's a $20 shirt. Maybe if it was a really high end shop, it might have been a $50 shirt. That's a tiny drop in the bucket of the store's Loss & Damage budget. It just doesn't matter. Worst case, the sales clerk who went chasing after the thief gets dinged at her monthly review or whatever, and reminded about the importance of preventing theft.

Shoplifters don't typically plan The Perfect Crime type heists. If the person tossed out a t-shirt, they stole a t-shirt. Maybe this person was real crafty and stole two t-shirts, or a t-shirt and a slightly higher priced item (still probably within the $20-50 range assuming they didn't go running out of Gucci). Still easily within the L&D budget and a minor ding on the clerk's Permanent Record.

What were you even hoping to achieve, anyway? Beat the hell out of the thief? Hold him down and call the cops? (Who would have arrested the guy and held him for 24 hours, all of which would have resulted in 10 hours of community service and mostly just a lot of inconvenience for everyone involved, not whatever Awesome Powers Of Justice you were imagining.)

I'll also add that, in plenty of cases, the "shoplifter" in question isn't a shoplifter at all. Clearly not so in this instance, but there's a reason that one of the first things they tell you in retail training is not to do what this sales clerk did. If you think someone is stealing, you talk to a manager or a security guard. Protocol even at the management level is to call the police. When the police arrive, you have them (or possibly a trained security guard) approach the person. You don't follow people around, or accuse people of things they maybe didn't do (huge liability for the store), or try to physically restrain anyone (that's potentially a crime against them). Even if you have reason to approach someone yourself, you ask for the merchandise or subtly impress upon them that they should put it back. You don't go chasing people out of the store.

If you see a guy beating his wife, step in. If you see somebody about to murder or rape somebody, step in. But a shoplifter from Hot Topic or whatever? Stay out of it.
posted by Sara C. at 9:55 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi all!
Thank you for all your thoughts, I've never thought of it this way. Indeed I had concerns about the legal aspects of things, especially since this is North America.

@fairmettle: Thanks for the link to Kohlberg! I've only skimmed it quickly (at work atm) and will have to read it more carefully at a later time.

posted by TrinsicWS at 10:54 AM on May 5, 2016

Yeah, the shop assistant shouldn't have even been chasing the guy. Having people steal from you is part of the retail business, and the ways in which an employee leaving the store to chase down shoplifters could go wrong is a bigger nightmare than the shoplifting. (And no, insurance does not even remotely cover theft like this. It's just something you budget for.)
posted by jimw at 2:00 PM on May 5, 2016

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