Last night, I witnessed a classic example of excessive force being used against a shoplifter. The scene played out in front of a nationally known grocery store in San Francisco. The shoplifter was an obvious-looking homeless person who apparently stole a bottle of high-potency wine probably valued under three-dollars. The man was about forty years old and appeared drunk and disoriented.
There were four uniformed security guards that were involved in the detention of this shoplifting suspect. Each of the security guards were younger, larger, and in better physical condition than the shoplifter.
The Wrong Approach
The shoplifter exited the store and was heading toward the parking lot. About two seconds later, two security guards ran full speed out of the store chasing the shoplifter. The noise for the guard’s footsteps apparently startled the shoplifter and he began to run as well. The shoplifter only managed about two steps when he was hit with a flying-head-tackle by one of the guards. The shoplifter hit the ground with great force with the guard riding him down and landing on top. The fall smashed the wine bottle that must have been concealed down the front of the shoplifter’s pants. An immediate smell of cheap wine filled the air and soaked the shoplifter and security guard.
The shoplifter was in obvious pain from the fall and was bleeding profusely from his head, arm, and neck. The way the blood was streaming from the shoplifter’s face, it looked as though it had hit the car windshield during a traffic accident. It’s unclear whether the broken wine bottle or the contact with the sidewalk caused the injury. All this occurred within a split-second in front of at least a dozen astonished witnesses.
The shoplifter started to cry out immediately that he was hurt when he saw the blood. The security guard that performed the tackle was upset because he was now covered with cheap wine and also with the suspect’s blood. With an obvious display of anger, the security guard started to manhandle the shoplifter in an attempt to take him into custody. The second guard looked on while two more security guards arrived from inside the store. What followed was an amazing scene.
The angry guard tried to handcuff the suspect who was curled up in the ground screaming from the sight of his own blood. The suspect was hollering for an ambulance and for the security guard to leave him alone. The guard began swearing at the suspect because he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get handcuffs on him. The back-up guard was either afraid, poorly trained, or didn’t want to get blood on himself because he did not assist. The frustrated security guard stood up, and in front of witnesses swiftly kicked the suspect in the face while demanding that he put his hands behind his back. Simultaneously with the kick to the face, the angry security guard called the suspect a "worthless piece of shit". The growing crowd was outraged by what they observed and almost started a riot.
The storefront now was out of control. Bystanders were threatening the guard and many others were already on their cell phones calling the police. By now, store management had arrived and was trying to calm the hostile crowd and prevent them from attacking the brutal officer. This crisis could not have been handled any worse.
The first thing the store manager ordered was for the unpopular guards to disperse the crowd. The security guards made matters worse by being defensive about the handling of the incident and by threatening angry bystanders with arrest should they interfere. The second order was to pick the injured suspect up off the ground and move him away from the entrance to the store. When the security guards complied, the wounds on the suspect became more apparent as blood dripped off his face. Up until this point no attempts were made by the guards to stop the man’s bleeding. Once the suspect was half-standing and screaming for help, the angry guard tried to handcuff the man again.
It took the combined effort of three security guards to finally handcuff the man, with his hands in front. All the shuffling, maneuvering, and fumbling made it appear as if they never handcuffed a person before. Rather than remove the suspect from the storefront and away from the angry crowd, the store manager decided to hold the suspect outside for the police. The guards, who obviously no longer wanted to be connected to the blood-soaked shoplifter, decided to shackle the suspect to a metal bench in front of the store. The guard supervisor, who openly verbalized a fear of catching AIDS, ordered those officers covered with blood to immediately go inside and wash up. Over the protest of the guards and store management, good samaritans went into the store and requisitioned necessary first-aid supplies off the shelf and treated the injured man.
Despite protest from the crowd, the man’s wounds had to be treated while he was still handcuffed and shackled to the bench. The handcuffs were never double-locked by the guards and were cutting painfully into the man’s wrists. Several grocery store employees arrived wearing loose-fitting plastic gloves, (obtained from the bakery department) now ready to assist with first aid. The crowd criticized this "too little, too late" maneuver, but let them proceed anyway because they brought fresh supplies, clean towels, and ice. The store manager, who was surveying the scene from the side, ordered staff to quickly clean the blood off the store entryway.
The Cavalry Arrives
Fifteen minutes after the incident began I could hear sirens approaching from the distance. A procession of no less than six police cars arrived--Code-3. Immediately, eyewitnesses ran to the police cars volunteering to report the brutality of the security guards. The arriving officers had to weave through the huge crowd to find the suspect still handcuffed and shackled to the bench. With San Francisco’s finest on the scene, the witnesses and security guards were quickly segregated and the crowd was dispersed. Officers were assigned to begin taking statements from the willing witnesses.
The police unshackled the suspect, loosened the handcuffs, and properly reapplied them behind the suspect. The shoplifter actually appeared relieved that the police had arrived and took charge. The paramedics arrived minutes later to treat and transport the wounded man. While all this was going on, the store manager was focused on the pool of blood on his sidewalk and was busy instructing store clerks how to apply bleach and scrub brushes to the stained surface.
I didn’t stick around because the police had things under control. However, it would have been interesting to hear the statements of all the witnesses and compare those to the statements of the security guards and store management. I would expect the security guards to give statements and write reports that justified taking the shoplifter into custody. I would expect the witnesses to overlook the theft and focus on the guard’s brutality, excessive force, and failure to immediately render aid to the injured man. I would not be surprised to see a lawsuit filed on behalf of this homeless man as I noted several people approach him and slip business cards into his shirt pocket.
What should have been a routine shoplifting apprehension may turn into a liability for the store. It was apparent that the store security guards lacked training and supervision. (See my web pages on Shoplifting: Detention & Arrest for proper technique). During the incident, the store management team seemed disconnected from the security guards and in my opinion didn’t respond appropriately to the evolving situation. Unfortunately, a scenario like this is not all that unusual when arrest authority is given to inexperienced and poorly trained contract guards. Proper training and supervision of all parties would no doubt have changed the outcome of this unfortunate incident.
If a lawsuit is filed against the store, the Plaintiff lawyer will focus on the negligence and misconduct of the security guards rather than on the theft by the shoplifter. It won’t surprise me either to see the petty theft charges dismissed by the District Attorney (if they were filed at all by the grocery store). Thanks to the fastidious store manager, the broken wine bottle was swept up and thrown away. Unbeknownst to him, it is almost impossible to prove petty theft by shoplifting in California without the physical evidence.
Merchants and loss prevention practitioners should view this report as a training exercise and cause you to review your shoplifter apprehension procedures so this unfortunate circumstance does not happen at your store. Also, check out my other web pages on proper shoplifter detention and arrest techniques.
For More Information
- Shoplifting: Probable Cause
- Shoplifting: Detention & Arrest
- Shoplifting: False Arrest
- Shoplifting: False Imprisonment
Security Guards Excessive Use of Force