Charlottetown Canada May 6 2012 Police are concerned that shoplifters across P.E.I. are increasingly prone to violent confrontation when caught in the act of stealing.
RCMP Sgt. Andrew Blackadar reels off a few incidents that illustrate the potential for harm.
On Jan. 5, 2011, a 26-year-old man grabbed bathroom towels at a Canadian Tire store in Summerside. A cashier confronted the man. The man pulled out three needles and threatened to stab the cashier. The cashier jumped out of the way and the man fled the store.
A 48-year-old man walked into the same store on Dec. 2, 2011 and attempted to steal building materials valued at about $100. When confronted by a female cashier, he violently pushed the woman over the counter.
Two weeks ago, a security guard stopped a man who had slipped on a pair of pants under his own pants at Wal-Mart in Charlottetown. A greeter who tried to help the guard detain the shoplifter received at least two punches in the face for his effort.
“We never know when a shoplifter will take it to the next level,” said Blackadar.
“I have photos of store security guards having their bodies slashed by knives of shoplifters while they try and escape.”
Dan Barry owns Atlantic Private Protection Services (APPS) in Charlottetown. His company provides security for grocery stores, large pharmacies and shopping malls.
His 125-strong security guard contingent must be ready for battle each time they put on their uniform or work a store in plain clothes.
About half the security guards he has working in retail stores carry batons and handcuffs.
Handcuffs, which are used the moment a shoplifter becomes violent, are used in about one third of the arrests made by APPS security guards.
“The people we are dealing with…there is no question they will go to violence very quickly,” said Barry.
“Today it’s fight or flight. It’s not uncommon to be threatened.”
One security guard with APPS, who asked to remain anonymous, has been providing security to retail businesses for the last six years in P.E.I.
He says shoplifters are far more brazen and confrontational today.
They are mouthy. They are more violent. They fight.
He was punched in the face last month by a shoplifter who managed to slip out of the security guard’s grasp and run away.
The security guard, who stands over six feet tall and weighs 245 pounds, is a use of force instructor. He has never struck a shoplifter but he has used pressure points to subdue some.
“We don’t allow our staff to use force unless they are trained to do so,” he added.
“We don’t want people to get involved in physical confrontation unless they are trained to do so.”
He says shoplifters often scoff at regular store staff when confronted and simply leave with their stolen goods.
“That is why they (retail businesses) come to us for security because they know that we will do something about it,” he said.
The Canadian Tire store in Charlottetown recently went without professional security for about six months but found too much pressure was put on staff.
Lawson MacEachern, the store’s general manager, says some shoplifters can be quite aggressive. Two to three people are sometimes required to contain a thief and get him back in the store.
“I worry about the staff,” said store manager Geoff Hyson, echoing MacEachern’s concerns.
“I worry about how desperate these people (shoplifters) can be.”
Both Lawson and MacEachern agree that many shoplifters are far more brazen today.
One person recently tried to walk out of the Canadian Tire store with an $800 wind turbine contained in a four-foot box.
More unpaid items are being walked out the door than ever before.
Lawson is hesitant to put a figure on the amount of merchandise lost to theft at the Canadian Tire in Charlottetown, but concedes the tally is hefty.
“It’s a staggering number,” he said.
Blackadar says the rate of shoplifting has shot up in recent years in the province.
In 2006, all police agencies combined laid 388 shoplifting charges in P.E.I. That number jumped to 678 in 2011.
When factoring in the Retail Council of Canada’s estimate that shoplifters are caught an average of once in every 48 times they steal, that translates into more than 32,000 incidents of shoplifting in P.E.I. last year.
The Retail Council of Canada also estimates this crime costs Canadian retailers $3.6 billion per year. Small independent retailers lose on average $1,000 per month.
Shoplifting also is a drain on police resources.
Blackadar says a typical shoplifting file takes about four hours for one officer to investigate. So almost 3,000 hours combined was spent by all police agencies in the province last year investigating shoplifting files.
The sergeant says liquor stores, grocery stores and department stores are major targets for shoplifters in P.E.I.
MacEachern says the people stealing from Canadian Tire range from teenagers to little, old ladies.
But Blackadar and the APPS security guard both strongly believe a great deal of shoplifting is driven by desperate people trying to feed their drug addiction.
The security guard arrested a woman who tried to push a cart filled with about $700 in unpaid groceries out the door of a store in Charlottetown. The woman returned the very next night to the same store to try again.
“She didn’t remember me from the first night because (he believes) she was on drugs.”
He says APPS security guards have a list of between 35 and 50 habitual shoplifters that they watch regularly.
The Retail Council of Canada estimates that habitual shoplifters steal on average 1.6 times per week. The APPS security guard says with some shoplifters “it’s an hourly thing.”
Blackadar says retailers generally are hiring more security and increasing both the number and quality of security video cameras installed in their buinesses.
Hyson says he spends more time than he would care to think watching a monitor in his office that displays images from 16 store cameras at Canadian Tire hoping to catch a shoplifter in the act.
“It’s so frustrating,” added the store GM MacEachern, who also peers regularly at the monitor in his office.
“You just do what you can do.”