How to Apprehend a Shoplifter

Updated on February 19, 2020

A Word About Safety

So you work in retail, and get frustrated by the droves coming into your stores taking what they'd like and disappearing into the moonlight. You wish there was something you could do about it.

Well, you can.

First things first. Every company has different rules. There are companies that will watch people steal on camera, only to file a police report. Contact is against their policy. There are companies that will do whatever they can to apprehend thieves and take them into custody. It is important for you to know where your company stands, so you aren't endangering your job.

Knowing your local laws is important as well. I know that here in Washington State we are allowed to use any and all "necessary force" to detain a shoplifter. I personally have been in many knockdown, drag-out, bloody fights to catch my guy. I'm sure most states and locales have the same perspectives, for the most part - but it's the little things that'll get you in trouble.

Most importantly: be safe. A shoplifter could be carrying any sorts of weapons on them. Or they could be trained in combat arts. Hell, they could even be high on PCP, which might even be worse than having a weapon! Your life isn't worth losing, protect that above all else.

Part One: The Steal

This is the first and most important step in catching shoplifters. My state law requires that I see the suspect enter the store without the product, see them select the merchandise, and see them leave the store with the merchandise. Eyes must be on them at all times. If they have a chance to ditch the merchandise in the small moments that you lose contact, you are in for big trouble if you try to apprehend them. You've also got to be 110% sure that the product they leave with wasn't their own.

So John Doe walks into your store. Something about him catches your attention and you decide to keep an eye on him. Some people prefer to give these folks "excellent customer service" so that they get scared, or just don't have a chance to steal. I don't like this approach. I feel that they'll just try again later if they aren't arrested and trespassed. You find yourself a good hiding spot where you have a clear view of the suspect, but he is unable to see you.

Mr. Doe walks down the aisle with batteries. Meth cooks love batteries. Certain ones have a necessary ingredient I guess. You see him select a handful of batteries, he looks around, and into the pocket go his batteries. This part is important: you need to know what he took, and where he put it. Specifics aren't necessary. "Batteries" is good enough.

As you suspected, your shoplifter friend starts making his way towards the door. This part is crucial. You've got to keep your eyes on him here - if he gets spooked for any reason and ditches the merchandise without you noticing, your job is on the line if you accuse him of stealing. It is also a good idea to have help. Hopefully by now you've alerted some co-workers to the situation, and they're ready to back you up.

John Doe walks past the "last point of purchase" and out the door, "without attempting to pay for the concealed merchandise." (These lines are important in the police report you will later need to fill out.) Now is your chance to approach the suspect and attempt to apprehend him. Make sure he is completely out of the store when you do this, otherwise all he has to do is say that he was going to pay for it, and your whole case goes out the window.

At this point, one of two things happen...

Part Two: Apprehension

The Suspect Cooperates

For most, this is the ideal scenario. You approach the suspect, inform him that you are an employee of the store, and that you need him to come back inside to talk about the batteries in his pocket. He knows he's been caught, and doesn't want to make his situation worse than it already is. He will often reply "Oh I'm sorry," to which I like to reply "You're only sorry that you got caught."

He may not like it, but I prefer to grab hold of him somehow. Whether it be by his arm, his shirt collar, or any other place you can get a good grip. This will help to eliminate his hopes of running, and gives you control of the situation. You walk him into your back room, or wherever you prefer to keep him in custody. I always like a place with the fewest exit routes in case he changes his mind.

Things get even more complicated now. If the suspect is a member of the opposite sex, then it is important that you have another witness of the opposite sex with you as well. This protects you in case the suspect wants to accuse you of any...scrupulous acts.
Often times for small thefts you may just want to trespass the suspect, take their picture, or whatever procedures your company requires then just send them on their way. However, if the suspect is a minor then you have an obligation. To protect yourself from any bothersome legal issues that I won't bother getting into here, you need to keep them in custody regardless of the scope of the crime. Do not release them to anybody except their legal guardian, or the police. Which to choose is really up to you.

The Suspect Tries to Escape

I'm an adrenaline junkie, so these are my personal favorite.

You approach the suspect, inform him that you are an employee of the store, and that you need him to come back inside to talk about the batteries in his pocket. He runs. Now it's the battle of wills. Hopefully you are faster than him, or at least have more endurance. If all else fails, cornering him works well too. Hopefully your coworkers are here to back you up.

This is where "necessary force" initially comes into play. You are catching up to him. Now what? Feel free to do whatever you need to stop his flight. I usually just grab their collar since it's the first thing I am able to reach. If possible, however, I prefer to get my arms around the suspect and take him to the ground, NFL style. But you won't be fined for dirty hits, so feel free to put your head down.

At this point, they may give up and you can move on to the next steps. Usually they will fight. Now to make sure you are within your legal boundaries, it's usually best to keep this fight to submission holds. However, if he makes any attempt to cause bodily harm to you, whether it be throwing a punch, landing a punch, choking you out, or any other means of violence...all bets are off. Personally I like to end the fights quick with a rear naked choke to end the fight quickly. But if necessary force entails a boxing match, breaking his nose, or a series of kidney punches, then go for it! Just make sure this is actually "necessary" so you don't get in trouble.

Important: If at any point the shoplifter brandishes a weapon of any sort - raise your hands in the air and back away. Do not put yourself in a situation to get stabbed, shot, or brutally maimed.

As soon as you have complete control over the situation, if you aren't aware of anybody having already dialed 9-1-1, this is a good time to start shouting at people to do so. Unless you are confident that the suspect will not put up a fight, it's usually best at this point to just keep him in submission right where you are until the police arrive, rather than trying to escort him into the store. As soon as he hit you, his crime escalated from misdemeanor shoplifting to criminal charges. (The specific charges will vary by state)

Hopefully the police have been informed of his lack of cooperation, and will be here quickly.

Part Three: The Paperwork

Now you need to write up a report. It's advised to do this immediately, while the details are still fresh in your mind. If the suspect put up a fight and the police are there, you probably won't have a choice in the matter anyway.

Make sure to include in this report a detailed description of what you saw. Be sure to include the "point of purchase" and "made no attempt to pay for the concealed merchandise" in this report. Also be sure to specify that the suspect was outside the store when you approached them. The police will generally read over your report afterwards, and inform you if there were any specifics they need to make sure the report sticks.

If you have opted to trespass the suspect and let them go, it is still important to get their information and write up a report. This way if they try and pull anything, you've got everything already in writing.

Part Four: Brag. (optional)

Now everybody is going to be talking about the event. It's the most exciting thing to happen at their normally boring job! You will probably have to tell the story several times. Don't worry, it's your chance to gloat and talk trash about that worthless thief. If they fought and you came out the victor, then you've got even more story/bragging to do. Show off your battle wounds if you have any. They're going to start hurting in about fifteen minutes.

Or remain stoic. Shoplifting is a serious manner. Give people the cold shoulder and say "Don't worry about it" when they ask. Clock out, go home, and be a loner. (And take some ibuprofin)

Just another day on the job.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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    • LisaKoski profile image


      8 years ago from WA

      People who work in retail or wherever the shoplifting occurs should also know that if a customer accuses another customer of shoplifting that the same idea that *you* must be 110% sure this actually happens applies. No matter what the other customer says, if *you* didn't see it happen then there's a chance it didn't and you don't want to risk your job or lose a customer who was actually innocent.

      This happened to me and a group of friends once when I was a teen. We got a accused in a store at the mall even though we didn't do anything. A customer screamed "she stole something!" and pointed to us five girls. Security was called and they stood uncomfortably close behind us as we wandered the store. I ended up putting the items I'd selected to *buy* on the counter, made my friends do the same, and walked out.


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