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How to Catch Someone Stealing without the Use of Excessive Force

Use of force by LP agents is a persistent concern for loss prevention executives. With it comes the potential for excessive force, a lawsuit, and safety risks to all parties—LP agents, store associates, perpetrators, and bystanders.

In The Handbook of Security, Read Hayes, Ph.D., CPP, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, describes the stakes. “Because of their role in deterring and apprehending dishonest customers, store detectives can either add value to an organization or create serious liability, making detective selection, training, and management very important.”

How to Catch Someone Stealing: Start with the Right Training

One critical element of training is on the subject of customer contact, according to Hayes. A retailer must train LP personnel on what to do when confronted by a non-compliant shoplifting suspect. LP officers should be able to answer: ‘If the customer resists my lawful apprehension attempt, should I (a) just let them go, or (b) attempt to physically restrain them?’

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While it’s critical to develop clear guidelines on the use of force, the mere existence of a policy—even one that is well communicated to LP officers—doesn’t guarantee that they’ll respond appropriately during a highly emotional event. Officers also require practical training, so that they develop and sharpen the tools that allow them to follow store policy.

Hayes suggested that retailers could do better on this front. “Even many uniformed security guards (often provided by third-party companies or off-duty law enforcement officers) lack the training and temperament needed to handle risky theft situations,” he writes. Because regardless of what a retailer’s policy might say, it is easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.

What to Do

“Addressing concerns [over use of force] is impossible without a systematic structure that ensures officers are adequately trained and equipped for the job-related activities that they must conduct,” notes recent research published in the Southern African Journal of Criminology. “A use-of-force preventative training model for law enforcement and security practitioners.”

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Security training professionals typically recommend active learning, such as scenario training, over static instruction, such as lecture and video instruction, especially when the subject has a physical response component, such as stopping an intruder or addressing a shoplifting suspect.

This research project, which examined excessive force by police and private security, supports that advice. In it, researchers conclude that “it is paramount to give officers the tools they need to manage their emotions when tested in real events.” It further advises that active learning is central to officers’ gaining competency.

More than lecture, video, or online instruction and pen-and-pencil testing, situational exercises or scenario training provides supervisors with a picture of how ready an officer is to handle an event. Active training is also more likely to break store detectives of bad habits. That is important because industry research has shown that previous loss prevention experience is often tied to worse job performance. The reason? Store detectives with prior experience may come with bad job habits that they learned in their previous job. Poorly performing store detectives often make a habit of moving from company to company.

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So what are some keys to the “how to catch someone stealing properly” scenario training? Here are a few questions to help get it right:

1. Do they get it? Classroom or computer learning lends itself to post-training written testing. While it’s more challenging to test after scenario training, it’s equally critical. Hands-on training resembles practice, but testing still needs to be part of the use-of-force training module, concludes the research. “This research indicated the need not only for an integrated system of training and acclimatization (familiarization) to the use of force, but also for a model of assessment that measures use-of-force competency.”

2. How long ago was it? Trainers favor active learning because, among other reasons, it has proven to enhance retention. But that does not mean that LP agents won’t forget their scenario training on use of force. “The perishable nature of use-of-force skills means that training should expand to include on-going refresher and skills training as well as regular competency assessments,” researchers concluded.

3. Does it seem real? Active training on use of force should approximate the real-world events for which you’re trying to get your LP team ready. “The need to train officers for the ‘real thing’ is of paramount importance,” said the study. “They need to be taught to manage adrenal response in order to perform effectively under the extreme duress of an attack situation.”

But is that possible? Can a mock confrontation with a potentially violent shoplifter truly approximate the real thing? Yes, suggests another new research study, which examined the scenario-based use-of-force skills refresher program conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “Monitoring the Impact of Scenario-based Use-of-force Simulations on Police Heart Rate: Evaluating the RCMP Skills Refresher Program,” published in Western Criminology Review.

Using heart rate monitors, the researchers measured the physiological stress reactions of 132 officers undergoing several use-of-force training scenarios, including a ‘break-and-enter in progress’ scenario, as well as a control scenario in which no use of force was required. Data was collected on the officers at several points during the scenarios, including 10 minutes prior, during, and 10 minutes after. Analyzed in comparison to real-world data, the researchers found that scenario training was almost like the real thing.

“This examination demonstrated that the current scenario-based use-of-force skills refresher program produces heart rate patterns that are consistent with the elevated physiological stress produced by real-world policing as demonstrated in prior field research.” Like the other study, the RCMP program review noted the importance of regular refresher training to keep officers primed to handle use-of-force situations. “Given that these use-of-force situations occur infrequently, the skills refresher training that they undergo must be relevant to ensure that police officers are optimally prepared to act under the high stress they will encounter.”

There is, of course, a significant problem with active training and scenario-based exercises. They are more time consuming and labor intensive than officer training that simply requires a manger to press “play.”

To make room for additional scenario training, LP organizations might examine their current training programs with an eye on eliminating common areas of program waste. LP teams could look to eliminate…

  • All training that is not sufficiently business specific and too generic so as to be meaningful for trainees.
  • All training that lacks specific objectives or does not match a true business need.
  • All training that lacks learner participation to the point that it is probably worthless.
  • All training that does not fill a specific gap in knowledge, base, or skill and is done, instead, because of performance problems that are more likely due to morale or other systemic issues.

This post was originally published in 2018 and was updated April 4, 2019. 

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