The advancements made in loss prevention technology have provided tremendous support for the loss prevention industry. Innovations made in retail technology systems, CCTV, alarm systems, RFID, EAS systems, and the many technology devices that support our efforts have helped drive the evolution of the loss prevention industry, and will continue to help move the industry forward as we face new challenges as retail companies continue to grow and change.
But technology alone cannot solve all of the challenges that our loss prevention programs face on a day-to-day basis, and in some instances that same technology can be used against us. We’re all well aware that technology is also a tool used by those that have dishonest intentions, to include organized retail crime teams, cyber-criminals, and others seeking to take advantage of retail organizations. But there are also issues that arise where even technology tools intended to help deter and resolve theft and crime can lead to significant problems when poorly implemented and managed.
Such appears to be the case with a new app that has recently made headlines due to complaints of potential racial profiling. A recent Washington Post article, “The Secret Surveillance of ‘Suspicious’ Blacks in One of the Nation’s Poshest Neighborhoods,” describes incidents in which people are identifying “suspicious” individuals in an attempt to share information and deter criminal acts.
In February of last year, the Georgetown Business Improvement District partnered with District police to launch “Operation GroupMe”, which they call a “real-time mobile-based group-messaging app that connects Georgetown businesses, police officers and community members.” Since then, the app has attracted nearly 380 users who surreptitiously report on — and photograph — shoppers in an attempt to deter crime.
Since March of last year, Georgetown retailers have dispatched more than 6,000 messages that discuss suspicious people. A review by the Business Improvement District of all the messages since January — more than 3,000 — revealed that nearly 70 percent of those people were black. There are often times when shoplifting is alleged, but in other instances these shoppers aren’t accused of anything other than appearing “suspicious.”
This has once again raised real concern over incidents of potential racial profiling. Based on available information, those using the application clearly haven’t been appropriately trained on the core competencies necessary to appropriately and effectively identify shoplifting behaviors. Descriptions of the incidents are largely based on the way individuals look and dress rather that any behaviors that they are engaging in. Photos are being published to online media outlets identifying individuals as being “suspicious” or “dishonest” simply based on the opinions of untrained eyes.
Even when those eyes have good intensions, such activity can and often will lead to unfortunate results. Offensive posts, inappropriate comments, and poor judgment can result when such tools are left in the hands of the ignorant and/or uninformed.
While we are currently unaware of any retailers that have sanctioned the use of such tools, several of the articles associated with this disturbing behavior have identified retail employees as among those using the application and posting these comments. Based on the information available in this situation, this week’s LP Magazine Instant Poll question asked: Should our employees be allowed to use digital apps to identify potential shoplifters and report suspicious behavior?
77 percent of those that responded to our poll believe that only those appropriately trained to use this technology should be allowed to use the digital apps to identify potential shoplifters and report suspicious behavior. Seven percent believe that all employees should be prohibited from using this type of loss prevention technology altogether, believing that the potential risks of misuse and abuse far outweigh any potential benefits associated with the use of the application.
There were also those that believe that employees should be allowed to use these applications if it deters crime. Unfortunately, it’s unclear what effect—if any, the use of the app has had on crime in areas where it has been used. It has precipitated “relatively few arrests,” said Joe Sternlieb, chief executive of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which organized the group responsible for “Operation GroupMe.” He added: “It’s impossible to know what’s working and what’s not to deter crime.”
Retail management and loss prevention leadership must make difficult decisions every day, and every decision must serve the best interests of the business—to include both the employees and the customers that we serve. That leadership cannot and should not support any decision that has the potential to jeopardize the integrity of the business or the respect and liberties of our customers.
Loss prevention industry-best practices are very clear when it comes to initiating a surveillance and following through on a shoplifter apprehension. Behavioral-based activity that is founded on specific situational conditions is the only acceptable reason to initiate a surveillance. Strict steps must be strictly adhered to in order to initiate an apprehension. Both require appropriate education and training far beyond the belief that someone “looks suspicious.”
When viable loss prevention technology solutions are found, those solutions must be coupled with viable policies and procedures, appropriate implementation, and effective training programs to ensure that these tools successfully meet the needs and objectives of the organization:
• Companies use policies to define the rules, principles, and protocols that will guide important actions and decisions. The policy is designed to ensure that a position or approach held by the company is translated into the fabric of the organization and followed by the employee base. Appropriate steps are taken to ensure that the policy is clearly stated, communicated, understood, implemented, enforced, and thereby owned by the entire organization.
• Effective implementation encourages a sense of ownership in the program. This instills key principles and definitive expectations into the core of programs; providing a straightforward path for our teams and a strong foundation to guide the decisions that follow.
• Training and awareness programs are key aspects of most loss prevention strategies. We use them to show employees how loss prevention concepts can and should be embedded in their everyday responsibilities. We use them to help keep our customers and employees safe. We engage our employees with strategies that reduce losses and enhance profits. We also build upon fundamental training and awareness strategies to develop our loss prevention teams.
In today’s retail world, loss prevention technology has become a primary force behind many of our strategic plans, driving many loss prevention initiatives and fueling new solutions in an omni-channel retail environment. With shoplifting and retail theft causing retailers tens of billions of dollars each year, retail loss prevention leadership and retail management teams are continuously looking for ways to find solutions to deter theft incidents and other forms of retail losses. But every tool still must be coupled with good decisions and common sense. Would you give a law professor a scalpel and tell her to perform surgery on a heart patient? She may be intelligent and have the best intensions—but that doesn’t make it a good idea.
To be fair, police officers and others frequently press for more details, or correct users who veer into stereotyping when using the application. But discriminatory profiling is often fueled by ignorance. Ignorance, by common definition, is the state of being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed. Perhaps we would be better off if we simply avoided handing out scalpels.
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