Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

In The News

Shoplifting: expensive, life-changing

By Amanda J. Halligan
Staff writer
Belvoir Eagle
April 17, 2003
Ft. Belvoir, Virginia

“The spouse of an Army lieutenant colonel was cited for shoplifting after closed circuit cameras showed her removing a purse valued at approximately $159, changing the price tag, and leaving the Main Exchange without paying.

An Army major’s son was cited for shoplifting when he was observed ... taking a CD visor holder and leaving the Main Exchange without paying. He was escorted to the security office where the merchandise, valued at $5.99, was recovered.

A retired Navy petty officer 3rd class was cited for shoplifting when ... cameras showed him removing several items, valued at about $55, concealing them in his pocket and leaving the Main Exchange without paying.” – Belvoir Eagle, March-April 2003

Think about it: That grape, the one plucked from the bunch while shopping and casually popped in the mouth? Technically, shoplifting. The 75 percent off sticker switched with one for full price? Again, shoplifting.

For some people, the line blurs between taking something without paying for it and “well, I just had one.” For others, they’ve forgotten there was a line to be crossed at all or they simply do not care. Last year alone, detectives at the Fort Belvoir Post Exchange caught 181 shoplifters, and those contemplating the act are reminded by a large cardboard cutout of a Military Police figure strategically placed in the store. AAFES-wide, $11 million in merchandise was recovered last year alone, according to Tom Gross, Fort Belvoir’s Post Exchange store manager. Of course that doesn’t account for the people who weren’t caught – the merchandise that will never be returned.

Shoplifting crosses all age, race, gender, and yes, in this case, rank. According to psychologist Jeffrey Schaler, professor of justice, law and society in the School of Public Affairs at American University, Washington, D.C., there is no one reason for shoplifting. People do it in different ways, for different reasons and with different results, but there are two common, underlying motivators. First, people tend to feel a sense of entitlement.

“It’s really narcissism,” Schaler said. “They feel entitled to things that belong to other people, and eschew having to work and live off the fruits of their own labor.” This could stem from something in the person’s background or a current life situation, he added. A resentment of authority is another common motivator. Schaler postulates a military installation may perhaps experience a greater incidence of this motivator because the military represents a powerful authority figure, and shoplifting is a way of expressing resentment that people cannot express in other ways. This resentment could be direct resentment of the military or displaced – resenting another authority figure but “taking it out” in a way that effects any representation of authority, Schaler said. Regardless of motivation, there is no excuse for shoplifting, he said.

Caught in the act
Catching a shoplifter can be a tricky process. Certain protocol must be followed to carefully monitor and record a person’s activities inside the store so a detective has enough proof to confront him or her. A number of resources are at a detective’s disposal. The PX here is equipped with 61 cameras, monitored by detectives and located throughout the store and parking lot. The cameras have the ability to zoom in on store registers and view the receipt totals to verify that everything placed in a person’s shopping cart is accounted for on the cash register receipt.

Store detectives are well-trained. They are sent to security programs offered by private companies to learn updated techniques and to keep their skills current. Two detectives were interviewed for this story but the Belvoir Eagle will not identify them by name or photo for security reasons.

Before leaving the surveillance room to detain someone, detectives must make sure the outside cameras are positioned to record the detention. This is to protect both the individual being detained and the detective, as some people have assaulted detectives in the past and use of force has become necessary. On occasion, these tapes do indeed make it to a judge’s chambers, one detective said. “Sometimes a judge will use it to make a decision,” she said.

Usually, however, the situation is peaceful. Detectives will follow a suspect out of the store and ask them to return to the store office to talk about the situation. “We don’t talk about the shoplifting outside,” said one detective.

Gross said the objective is not to humiliate the person, but to recover the merchandise and see that proper action is taken. But the objective is not to merely catch people stealing, he said. “If we deter people, then we’re doing just as well.”

Shoplifting guarantees
When a person shoplifts at the PX they are guaranteed several things: They will be arrested by MPs who show up at the PX and escort them to be processed and released. It can be a humiliating experience to be marched out through the PX to a police vehicle, Gross said.

In addition, anyone caught shoplifting is automatically charged a $200 civil recovery fee and their shopping privileges are instantly revoked for six months, with second-offenders losing this privilege indefinitely, Gross said. Though a letter may be submitted to ask that the fee be waived, such a request is rarely granted, he said. In the event a minor is caught stealing, his parents are responsible for paying this fine.

But the punishment doesn’t stop there. Active-duty service members can be stripped of rank, lose pay, housing privileges or, depending on the individual’s commander, be kicked out of the military. If a minor is caught, he or she is required to give a verbal apology to the store manager. In addition, community service hours, with parental supervision required, are typically assigned. Gross said one young man recently told him he’d received 75 hours community service, and the work is not easy.

There are also other repercussions because military communities tend to be close-knit, Gross said. “If they see little Johnny over there getting escorted out in handcuffs, and they recognize him as their neighbor kid, it’s like, ‘Hey, he’s a thief!’.”

Gross said that when confronted, many people deny they have taken anything. “It’s a defense mechanism,” Schaler said, and it’s not really as complex as one might think. “Acknowledging the truth is so anxiety-producing that they create a defense that it didn’t happen.”

Not an illness
Though some people claim shoplifting, like other addictions, is an illness, “there’s nothing neurological or neuro-chemical that’s responsible for shoplifting,” Schaler said. “They have the ability to control themselves, so there’s no reason they should be excused for this criminal behavior. I just regard this as bad behavior; they aren’t exercising proper resistance.”

Surprisingly, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, people who shoplift are not always of low socio-economic status. Remember Wynona Ryder? It isn’t an issue of money at all, Schaler said. It has much more to do with the thrill, the “I can get away with it” feeling. “There’s something about the excitement and the risk taking that applies to a certain section of the population ... and even though people know the repercussions, there is a thrill of walking that edge,” he said.

And some people think they have “beat the system.” What they may not know is that detectives have what one might call a “PX Most-Wanted List,” complete with photos of people they suspect of shoplifting but haven’t quite been able to catch in the act. These photos are circulated to other PX locations as a precautionary measure, and because detectives can be shuffled to various locations, these faces are familiar and the chance suspected shoplifters will be caught increases. In other words, if someone is suspected of shoplifting, that suspicion could follow them to other duty stations — anywhere in the world, Gross said.

Because shoplifting isn’t considered a “disease,” and there is no proof of an underlying medical problem causing the behavior, the options for handling such an individual are two-fold. For people who are of age, Schaler believes they should serve time in jail. “They should be punished for this, for two reasons,” he said. “One, because it’s harming someone else, and two, because society should be protected from people like this.”

Another option is counseling; talking with the individual to see what’s really going on. “Don’t focus on the shoplifting,” Schaler said, “but what do they think they’re solving by shoplifting? What are they not addressing in their life?” He likens it to drugs: “People use drugs because they think it makes them feel better. It doesn’t solve the root problem. If they solve the real problem, that can help.”

While there are, on occasion, situations where people steal because they are truly poor and need the money or merchandise, that is not a legitimate excuse for stealing, he said.

Fort Belvoir residents are reminded that Army Regulation 210-50 states quarters may be terminated by the garrison commander for any instance of misconduct by service members, members of their family or guests.

In addition, Gross offers a word to the wise: “Maybe they get away with it today, but sooner or later, the odds are against them. They ought to think twice, especially if they are a military member,” he said. “It’d be a shame to have 19 years and get kicked out of the military.”