Retail stores often seem to take the brunt of whatever malady that occurs—storms, flooding, hacking, and, of course, civil disobedience. Media headlines, communities, police, and retailers continue to deal with fallout from police officers’ physically dealing with individuals who they believe are resisting their enforcement efforts. No matter where any particular American stands on what, why, and how specific incidents occurred or should have transpired, it seems the topic of protective process and decision-making is always very relevant to loss prevention.
This column should not be considered definitive or comprehensive. How individuals, communities, and organizations should best protect lives, property, and reputation is rapidly evolving and absolutely requires much more research. But this writing is simply designed to provide discussion material to loss prevention decision makers continually developing their programs.
Decisions and Choices
First off, it seems some lawyers, media members, and others insist on defining crime and crime response discussion points and choices in isolation, when scientists and LP practitioners alike realize context is also critical. The notion that events are simplistic or isolated is generally not the case. People and places influence behavior. Actions and reactions flow and trigger each other.
And it is in this complex context that organizational executives must make decisions on how to protect their people and other assets. It is also in this context that offenders make their proactive and reactive decisions as well. These dynamics interact and drive each other over time. They are not mutually exclusive.
This specific discussion deals more with organizational and individual employee decisions than with offender decisions, but both are interdependent. In actuality, it is offenders themselves who decide to become offenders and, then, to actually offend. Genetics, childhood experiences, peer interactions, current financial and relational circumstances, mood, intoxicants, proximate environment, and situational crime opportunities come together in place and time to create a particular type of behavior.
But regardless of how much each of these factors shape an individual and, in part, their behavior, it is the offenders themselves who personally decide to commit a crime, to actually initiate that crime, to continue a crime attempt despite anti-crime hurdles, and, if relevant, to resist efforts to detain them for their crime.
As this column has previously stated, asset protection is mostly about reducing crime and loss by attempting to cost-effectively shape the vulnerabilities and capabilities of the retail environment, as well as influencing crime and other poor decisions on their properties. Other than with employees, retailers generally can’t select visitors to their locations, so they must do the best they can to persuade people to behave themselves on property.
Retail organizations face difficult asset protection choices. Ignoring or ineffectively addressing ongoing crime and loss exposure and problems can result in death and injury, crippling losses, and financially destructive avoidance behavior by shoppers. On the other hand, taking preventive and responsive LP action creates responses like any intervention does and can result in damaging liability claims, detrimental media coverage, harmful social dialogue and actions, and other damaging business effects.
These tough choices mean retailers must do the best they can with limited available scientific evidence to carefully design their protective response to inevitable crime. Retailers continue to shape what they do to prevent crime and loss, and how they respond to crime and loss events; learning from research, testing, and others.
Most retailers strive to implement a focused protection process. This process can differ greatly since retailers sell so many different types of merchandise in so many different store sizes and shapes, and in so many different parts of the country. Regardless, most LP programs aim to help their businesses thrive by deterring, detecting, responding, and documenting problematic people and incidents. They should also continuously analyze impact and cost-benefit while improving their LP people, programs, and systems.
Protect Or Not Protect
Retailers respond to the constant and evolving crime threat, but should part of that response include detaining offenders? Each retailer decides the answer to this question based on their own analyses. The previously mentioned tough choices dilemma means this decision is carefully weighed. One argument for many retailers continuing to apprehend offenders is the “DODO concept.” The non-technical DODO term simply stands for “dumb or determined offenders.” In other words no matter how much a retailer does to deploy anti-theft people, processes, and technologies, many offenders don’t notice or care about them, so harmful losses and other problems continue and often at an unacceptable rate.
This reality leads many retailers to decide to apprehend theft offenders in order to continue to operate. Communities have the same issue since their family support and crime prevention activities only reduce crime, they don’t eliminate it. Chronic and high-impact criminals and “criminogenic” places are targeted for special enforcement activities to reduce more serious offending and consequences and to allow honest, productive people to live in safer communities.
There is no broadly accepted “model” offender-handling process, but most contain some version of the following topics:
- Detection of probable offenders or actual theft attempts,
- How to observe and confirm a theft,
- Criteria needed to decide whether to break off an observation or engage a shoplifter,
- Handling the actual detention,
- How to handle offender resistance,
- How to properly document the crime, and
- How to criminally and civilly process offenders.
The National Retail Federation team recognized the need for retailers to conduct meaningful discussion and research around better ways to identify and deal with theft offenders, particularly in light of profiling concerns, and commissioned a special general session on the topic at their 2014 loss prevention conference. It was as part of preparing for this session that I tried to develop a quick and easy term to help guide the first part of the theft offender handling process—actual detection and prioritization.
Real-world theft detections and apprehensions can unfold very quickly and are fluid and often unpredictable. And, of course, they’re sometimes dangerous. Regardless of this complexity, LP operatives should always strive to act professionally, objectively, and without malice or prejudice. Be smart, be in charge, and lead by example no matter how stressful the situation. So the proposed term “BDP” is designed to be easy to recall, simple to follow, and help reduce unhealthy bias or inappropriate detentions.
BD means behavioral detection since we primarily use observed behaviors as cues to decide who to initially pay more attention to, while the P means prioritization, since the protocol helps decide who to continue watching, especially if there are multiple people exhibiting interesting in-store cues. Following are some BDP specifics discussed in an earlier LP Magazine issue for more detail.
Store employees are constantly picking up cues from shoppers and looking for patterns that might mean a theft is underway. The important thing to remember, however, is there should be a logical, non-biased suspect pick-up and observation process. And we believe that process means this:
- We should only respond to logical cues (discussed more below).
- Cues shouldn’t occur solo, but rather appear in clusters.
- Cue clusters should occur in proper context.
In other words, stealers versus non-stealers can in part be identified by clusters of cues taken in context. No single behavior such as repeatedly “looking around” signals theft every time. Someone could be looking for a friend or restroom. But a group of behavioral and enabling cues like (1) frequent looking around, (2) standing at an extreme angle and (3) very close to a fixture (4) filled with small, high-loss items (5) with their hands down, (6) while holding a shopping or other bag in hand should prompt an employee to more closely watch that individual.
We’re looking at further categorizing cues into behavioral actions and reactions, and non-behavioral enablers or tools as part of the logical offender actions and needs for successful theft.
- Theft actions include head and hand positions, in-store travel speed and direction, distance and angles to displays, signaling to others, diversion actions and tests (to put us off or to see if we’re watching).
- Theft stress reactions include flushing, yawning, stretching, and grooming or other nervous gestures.
- Theft enabling cues include carrying bags or other conveyances, athletic footwear for rapid escape, theft tools like cable or package cutters, special lined bags to defeat EAS systems, and false receipts.
As mentioned, these cues should appear in clusters, and the context of the situation should add power to the overall prediction.
Detention and Resistance
Next comes another difficult decision sequence. If a trained employee uses their BDP protocol, observes a theft, and decides to engage and detain a suspected thief, they are expected to try and follow their employer’s apprehension guidelines to minimize chances of problems. Detentions can suddenly become violent at any point during the process, sometimes making strict procedural compliance difficult. Regardless, thorough and repeated training and testing on properly handling the variety of more common shoplifter detention reactions help store-level people become more proficient and ultimately support the LP mission while minimizing negative outcomes. Safety of store employees, bystanders, and offenders is the priority.
Retailers often seek experienced, thoughtful trainers to provide initial and periodic training. Like anything we need to get right and stay effective on, detecting, observing, and apprehending offenders should be constantly rehearsed with multiple scenarios. Get good, and stay good. Always be ready and able.
Loss prevention like law enforcement is tough, real, and important. Logical and, whenever possible, evidence-based protective programs help protect assets and people from harm and make shopping and working at a given store safe and fun.