I used to bust shoplifters for a living.
You know those casually dressed, undercover security officers who walk around carrying light merchandise and acting as though they are shopping just like anyone else, when really they’re watching everyone else?
Maybe you don’t know that’s a job. Anyway, I had that job. I was awful at it, too.
For nine months, back when I was 22, I worked for a large retailer that has stores throughout Indiana and other parts of the Midwest (especially in Michigan). This retailer has a German name. I’ll let you put those clues together.
“I want someone with integrity,” my supervisor said during my job interview. He stressed that he wanted someone he could trust, especially someone who exhibited great character. His maloccluded front teeth gleamed when he smiled, and I mirrored him. He said it was good that I was smiling because it put him at ease. (What kind of job interview was this?)
He also stressed his religious devotion during the interview, which should’ve been a red flag right there. He was a preacher, and often told people how good of a man he was, because as we all know, that’s what good men do: brag about it.
I didn’t trust him. That should’ve been a warning sign, too, but I took the job, anyway.
My job consisted of following suspicious-looking customers around the store and spying on them as they shopped. Most of the time, that’s all they did, and I ended up getting paid for people watching all day.
Sometimes, when I got bored or when nothing was happening, I actually was shopping. I’d go hang out in the music section and act as though I was working (though not in an obvious way — just in a way that my co-workers couldn’t say anything).
So really, when I should’ve been working by pretending to shop, I was shopping and pretending to work. I had a blast doing this. (Does this mean I’m not a person of integrity?)
The job required me to learn first aid, CPR, and a blue million safety rules, which meant I had to go around and issue write-ups for safety violations. This could be something as simple as an employee leaving a ladder unattended, or finding a fire extinguisher that hadn’t been inspected recently.
I once was called to the meat department to attend to a team leader who was injured. He’d gotten his hand caught in the band saw, which cut through wire mesh gloves, and hacked open the back of his hand.
I could see his tendons.
My initial response was a panicked, “Oh, God.” He went into shock seconds later. I should’ve known right then that this wasn’t the job for me, but I kept trying anyway, ignoring all the warning signals. Luckily, I had another officer there to help me, because I was no use. I nearly went into shock myself when I saw the back of the guy’s hand. He was hospitalized for days, and I’m not sure he ever worked with a band saw again. I know I didn’t do first aid after that.
When I wasn’t doing first aid or write-ups, I had my own walkie-talkie that I carried around the store, and when we officers had to reach each other, we had to blow into the receiver — sort of like “Psst!” In retrospect, this was pretty stupid. Invariably, my walkie-talkie would go off when I was standing right next to a customer I was watching.
To arrest a shoplifter, there were three requirements:
1) Watch him or her select an item from our shelves.
2) See him or her conceal the item on his or her person (or in a bag).
3) Then see him or her take the item beyond the point of purchase without attempting to pay.
If we had any break in surveillance, even for a second, we couldn’t arrest the suspect. With rules like that, we had to let dozens of shoplifters walk out with stuff we knew they’d gotten, just because we couldn’t risk getting sued. Sometimes, we could see the merchandise sticking out of their pockets, but we couldn’t do anything because we’d lost them for a moment.
I spent most of my time bored stiff. The job was awful. What I thought would be a fascinating, exciting experience turned into the opposite within a matter of weeks.
We worked in nine-hour shifts, but if we arrested a shoplifter near the end of our day, we stayed until all the paperwork was done, which could be three hours or more. No overtime, of course — we had to shave the hours later in the week.
I had co-workers who were really, really good at spotting thieves, even if I couldn’t. One co-worker, Tony, and I were walking around the store one evening when we spotted an elderly woman in the clothing section. She was wearing a Christmas sweater and green pants. Tony looked at her oddly, then at me, and then motioned that we should watch her.
“Who, her? She’s someone’s grandma!” I whispered. I was sure Tony was wasting time.
We watched her anyway. She had a huge purse sitting in the baby seat of her shopping cart. Next to the purse, she had one of our electric shavers. Within minutes of Tony and I spotting her, she stuffed the shaver into her purse and zipped it up.
Someone’s grandma was ripping us off.
So we waited for her to get out to the parking lot, where we arrested her. She had other items in her purse, so the value of the merchandise necessitated the police. The police searched her minivan, which was full of stolen merchandise from several other stores in the area. They’d been looking for her, too.
She was someone’s grandma!
The whole episode reminded me of that Monty Python bit about “Hell’s Grannies,” a rogue faction of elderly women who terrorized the streets of London. I pictured her swinging her purse, knocking over trashcans, and slashing tires.
On another night, we stopped a man who had pocketed a single light bulb. He had his hands full, so he put one of them in his coat pocket. I watched him put some items down and absent-mindedly walk out with the bulb sticking out of his coat. We arrested him over a light bulb worth less than one dollar. He said he’d forgotten. I wanted to believe him. That incident should’ve been another warning sign to get out. You’re not supposed to trust these people.
I knew I wasn’t very good at the job. There is no way I would’ve known to watch Hell’s Granny if Tony hadn’t spotted her purse and that electric shaver in the baby seat of her cart. He later told me he just had a “funny feeling” about her.
I never once got that funny feeling about anyone who shopped there.
I supposed that’s why in nine months of doing the job as a trainee, I only “officially” arrested one shoplifter — a 12-year-old boy who tried to pocket a copy of Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire CD right in front of me. Because I was a trainee, I didn’t even get credit for that one, technically.
I helped with many arrests, but that boy was the only shoplifter I ever saw do anything wrong. All arrests were credited to other officers because he/she saw the whole thing, or had completed their on-the-job training certification.
Several months in, I heard a story — not sure if it was true — about a fellow officer at another store who was marching a shoplifter back to the office to wait for police. As they walked by the photo counter, the shoplifter reached out, grabbed a pencil, and stabbed the officer in the neck. He bled out right there and died.
That was a giant, loud red flag — one I couldn’t ignore. I made $8 an hour. Good money for a college student, but what a terrible job for me. For $8 an hour, my life could be at risk?
Eventually, I got out. I later found out that my supervisor and a few of my co-workers were fired for violating company policies (and in a couple of cases, the law). Yes, this included my supervisor — the man of integrity. Go figure.
Every now and then, I’ll go into one of those stores and see an officer or two. They’re not hard to spot. They’re the ones shopping, but acting as if they’re working.