Retailers Run Private Shoplifter Justice Systems

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At Macy’s department store in Manhattan, shoplifting suspects are body-searched, photographed, and handcuffed to a long steel bench in a room containing two chain-link holding cells, the New York Times reports. Their Social Security numbers are punched into a national database, and they are turned over to the police or they are freed. Almost all of them sign confessions and are asked to pay penalties: five times the amount of what they stole.

This private jail and the policing system that governs it is replicated to varying degrees in other department stores across the nation. Last year, more than 12,000 people moved through detention rooms in 105 Macy’s stores, including more than 1,900 in Manhattan. Only 56 percent of those people were sent to the police. The company says that more than 95 percent of those detained confess to shoplifting and many pay the in-store penalty before leaving. The Manhattan store lost $15 million to theft last year.

Retailers say private police fill the void left by public police too burdened to chase small-time thieves. Private police also save retailers legal costs by helping them settle shoplifting cases directly with the perpetrators.

Elaborate systems like the one at Macy’s in Manhattan – which includes 100 security officers, four German shepherds, hundreds of cameras, and a closed-circuit television center reminiscent of a spaceship control room – have highlighted a concern shared by a range of people, from civil libertarians to individual shoppers who have been detained, and even to some law enforcement officials. Whether guilty or innocent, critics say, those accused of shoplifting are often deprived of some basic assurances usually provided in public law enforcement proceedings: the right to legal representation before questioning, rigorous safeguards against coercion, particularly in the case of juveniles, and the confidence that the officers in charge are adequately trained and meaningfully monitored.


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