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When Apprehending Shoplifters, Excessive Force is Never an Option

LP Magazine’s top articles touch on some of the industry’s most controversial issues. This story examines one such disputed topic: the nature and necessity of excessive force when it comes to apprehending shoplifters.

As part of a 2015 civil lawsuit, an Omaha jury ordered a discount store to pay Richard “Dave” Moore, who was convicted of shoplifting from the retail store, $750,000 for injuries he received from a loss prevention officer.

According to court records and accounts by Moore’s attorney, Moore was in the store with his girlfriend when loss prevention employees observed him conceal a pair of eyebrow scissors and a pair of nose-hair scissors. Both are roughly the size of tweezers.

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Upon leaving the store, he was confronted by two loss prevention employees who requested that he return to the store. While accounts varied from there, the shoplifter refused to return to the store and an altercation ensued.

As a result, a 250-lb loss prevention representative took the 150-lb shoplifter to the ground. In the process, he struck his head on the pavement, suffering several skull fractures, bleeding on the brain and two black eyes. During his stay in the hospital, doctors diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury—one that he claimed continued to cause problems with his thought process and memory.

Moore pleaded no contest in court to shoplifting and was fined $50. However, he claimed he hasn’t been able to work since. He said that he has no memory of that day and had been unemployed in the seven years since the incident. His attorney claimed that the reason for bringing the lawsuit was to “try to make sure that this didn’t happen to anybody else…we’re hopeful that this causes loss prevention people to follow their own guidelines. There was no need for this to happen. No one deserves to be thrown to the ground, even if you’re a shoplifter.”

The former loss prevention employee—who no longer works for the retail company—testified that he acted in self-defense out of fear that Moore, who was resisting, might use the small scissors to stab or gouge him. Moore alleged that the loss prevention employees used excessive force. Attorneys for the company declined to comment following the decision.

How Should LP Handle Resistant Shoplifters?

An October 2015 LP Magazine poll asked: Based on the available information, does the incident involve excessive force, or were the actions of the loss prevention representatives justified?

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The question sparked the interest of our readers, with strong participation in the poll and on social media. Based on the limited insights available about the specific case, 21 percent of respondents believed that the shoplifter should have been allowed to leave when he resisted, and the confrontation shouldn’t have taken place at all. This is common practice and company policy within many loss prevention departments today, placing an emphasis that nothing in a store is worth the risk of someone being hurt—whether that person is an employee, a customer or bystander, or the shoplifter himself.

On the other hand, 22 percent believe that LP representatives had the right to defend themselves and acted accordingly, believing that the threat of potential harm was sufficient to justify the actions of the LP representative.

However, 49 percent felt that while the employees have a right to defend themselves, excessive force was used in this situation, to the point where several respondents believe that the LP representative should have been terminated and charged with assault.

The Use of Reasonable Force When Apprehending Shoplifters

According to the Loss Prevention Foundation’s LPQualified certification course, reasonable force is, “that force necessary and within reason to obtain and maintain control during an apprehension.” The use of force should be considered a measured response in an apprehension situation. We say measured response and not a balanced response because when we talk about the use of force, we do not use the approach of a balance of power and strength—or “an eye for an eye.” The purpose in the use of force is to obtain and maintain control. Excessive force is any force above that which is needed to obtain and maintain control. Excessive force is never justified, regardless of the value of the merchandise or the seriousness of the offense.

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Most often when making an apprehension, little or no force is necessary to get shoplifters to comply. Often, that “force” is simply the command in your voice. On rare occasions, it may be necessary to exert some physical force in order to control the situation, subdue the subject, and maintain the safety of everyone involved.

However, the key is control. Maintain control of the situation and yourself. Never escalate your response. Industry best practices indicate that you should only use the amount of force necessary to control the situation. The most effective way to control the situation is to approach and speak with confidence and authority, and to remain professional and non-threatening. The goal is to have no physical contact with the shoplifter at all.

If the situation is getting out of control, the best way to diffuse it is to let the shoplifter go without further incident. Nothing in the store is worth someone getting hurt. In the situation described, a man received skull fractures and brain injuries over the theft of tweezers. But regardless of the circumstances, we should never try to match the bad decisions of others with bad decisions of our own.

This article was originally published in 2015 and was updated August 22, 2018. 

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