In just about any of Bruce Lee’s legendary martial arts films, there’s always a point where someone says, “Did you go to the police?” And the victim comes back with, “The police won’t do anything, because there’s no proof.”
In the late 70s/early 80s sci-fi TV show, The Incredible Hulk, the awesome Bill Bixby, starring as Dr. David Banner, would almost always ask, “Did you go to the police?” And the main guest star of the week would retort with, “The police won’t do anything. I can’t prove it.”
Growing up a bit naive, I just assumed that in a martial arts movie where there would be no use for Lee’s awesome talents if the cops pulled out their guns and settled the score, they had to make up an excuse not to call the police. Same for The Incredible Hulk. If the police were around to stop the bad guys from tying Banner up and throwing him in the ocean to die, there would be no reason for him to change into the giant green monster and save the day.
However, I’ve had a few real life experiences that tell me perhaps the police aren’t always the answer.
One of those experiences happened recently at work. Now, this particular experience didn’t happen to me. It happened to my boss, who owns the business in-which I help run.
Approximately three weeks ago, my boss noticed a bunch of empty Pop Tart boxes and other items stuffed into a shelf one morning. Fortunately, this particular shelf was visible to one of the surveillance cameras located around the store. My other boss went back and reviewed the footage from a day earlier, and he discovered a young girl stuffing many items into a large bag she was carrying with her, and when her bag got too full to stuff full boxes of Pop Tarts into it, she opened the boxes and started putting the little individual wrapped tarts into her bag. She also stuffed many things into her pockets, before throwing what she couldn’t fit into the shelf. She placed the bag into her cart, picked out a couple of arbitrary items, went through the check-out and paid for them, while she slyly slipped by the teenage cashier who was completely oblivious to the huge bag of food she had sitting in her cart.
This girl, who turned out to be 19, thought she covered her tracks because she strategically hid behind a huge display, located in the isle in-which she committed her thievery. She may have been hiding from the people who were shopping at the moment, and the employees who were working at the moment, but little did she realize she was committing her crimes right in front of the eye in the sky, and that never lies (so much for a criminal genius).
Because this girl appeared to steal a substantial amount of food (at least $100), my boss decided to call the local police. And since the surveillance footage automatically erases after 48 hours, he took his cell phone and recorded the footage on the monitor and then emailed it to the local detective in charge of investigating such crimes.
The next day, this detective and his partner came to the store to ask questions and examine the footage. They even took one of the empty Pop Tart boxes away to dust for fingerprints.
The lead detective said, “If you see this girl in here again, call the police immediately, and don’t let her leave the store until someone arrives.”
Sure enough, yesterday was the time she came in again. I didn’t know this because I was busy doing a zillion things. Thankfully, the one teenage cashier who was completely oblivious the first time, spotted the girl and pointed her out to me. I investigated and, sure enough, it was her. I found my boss, who told me to call the police.
I called them, but I made sure to stand in front of the surveillance monitor in the back because I didn’t want to lose sight of the thief. As I was talking on the phone to the police, the girl was doing the exact same thing she did the last time–stuffing a copious amount of food into a blue bag in her cart.
The policeman who answered the phone told me to keep an eye on her and that someone would be down shortly.
My boss stood by the front door and waited for the girl to leave. After going to the front of the store and asking the cashier for a price check (my guess as a diversion), she decided she didn’t want that item and coyly tried to slip out the door again. This time, my boss stopped her and wouldn’t let her leave. He informed her that he had her on camera doing the exact same thing the last time.
The girl said, “Oh, that wasn’t me, and I’m going to pay for this stuff. I was just going to go outside and call my parents to ask them for money.” It was a pathetic excuse, and, naturally, nobody bought it.
My boss wouldn’t let her leave, and as the police came into the store, she started going around and putting the items on the shelf.
I thought I was going to see someone being taken away in handcuffs. But the law is a funny thing.
Because the girl started putting the stuff back, there was no proof on the dollar amount she was trying to steal.
And, in retail theft, that’s extremely important.
Unbeknownst to me, there’s a law on the books that says if a person goes into any business and gets caught stealing less than $150 worth of merchandise, the police can’t arrest them. They can restrain them and question them briefly. They can take down their information and warn them not to frequent that business ever again, but they can’t physically take them into custody, book them and incarcerate them.
Despite the fact that the girl was seen on tape a few weeks ago stealing a ton of food, and despite the fact that several witnesses watched her stuff food into her bag again yesterday–including me as I observed her on the surveillance monitor–there was no actual proof that she stole at least $150, so nothing could be done.
My boss could press charges, and take the girl to court and leave it all up to the judge, who may or may not issue a fine. The only good that would do then is she would be officially convicted and could actually get arrested if she was ever caught stealing anything again.
However, unless my boss takes the time to do so, and unless the judge actually sides with my boss, the girl is free to keep stealing as much as she wants, just as long as she keeps the total under $150. She’s forbidden from coming into my store ever again, of course, and if she does, she could get arrested for trespassing, but big deal, right? She’s not stupid enough to come back again. However, she was just smart enough to get away with stealing.
Or maybe it wasn’t that she was that smart. Maybe the real problem is the law is just dumb.
Our justice system. You gotta love it.