Why shoplifters are often not pursued by retail staff

Each year, nearly $47 billion worth of goods are shoplifted nationwide.

In Washington state, the yearly amount of merchandise taken equals nearly $1 billion.

So why don’t many retail store staff members pursue shoplifters?

What happened to Elizabeth Pratt is one example.

“I was screaming in pain,” the Des Moines woman said about the agony of a newly-broken hip. “It was certainly a pain that I had never experienced before, not even childbirth.”

Pratt was shopping at the Staples in Burien in August 2018 when a teenager suddenly rushed past her, knocking the then 85-year-old to the ground.

According to reports filed by King County Sheriff's Deputies, the collision happened as the juvenile suspect was "running from employees.” Pratt and her attorneys believe Staples workers should have let the suspected shoplifter go.

Mike Kelly, of Gehrke Baker Doull Kelly Attorneys at Law in Des Moines, said “over-pursuing, or overly aggressively pursuing shoplifters” to the point where “non-involved, innocent business invitees or shoppers” can be injured fails to protect the public. Kelly believes Staples employees failed in their duty to protect Pratt the day she broke her hip.

Not only did Pratt suffer a broken hip, the injury also broke up her home.

“My husband and I were living independently,” Pratt told KIRO 7. However, because of her injuries, she and her husband are living apart for the first time in the couples’ 66 years of marriage.

Nearly two years after the incident, they are still living separately and are now suing Staples.

“It’s costing us twice as much to live in assisted living as it was in our independent living,” Pratt explained.

The Pratts’ daughter, Belinda Burkitt, was with her mother when she was injured.

“They’ve never lived together in the same room since that day,” Burkitt said of her parents. “My mom went from being very active in the retirement community and getting herself to meals and taking care of my dad to absolutely not being able to take care of him.”

Pratt feels none of this would have happened had Staples employees not pursued the shoplifter, who allegedly pocketed $100 in merchandise.

KIRO 7 tried to find out whether Staples -- like many major retailers -- has a hands-off policy when it comes to pursuing shoplifters, but emails to the company were not returned.

Attorney Joe Baker, who also represents Pratt, said a “strictly hands-off, non-pursuit” policy is “very common” at many retail stores.

A source who works loss prevention at Home Depot told KIRO 7, the nationwide retailer also has a strict hands-off policy.

The source – who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution – also revealed that the Home Depot on Aurora Avenue North in Seattle lost $2.2 million to shoplifting in 2018 alone.

And it's reportedly hands-off at many other local stores.

Tom Geiger, communications director at UFCW 21 – which represents many union retail workers – told KIRO 7 that “all the employees, at least at the grocery stores that we represent, the big grocery stores as well as a lot of the independents, the policies are generally do not intervene. Do not become the security cop.”

This hands-off approach is helping to fuel crime throughout Western Washington, according to Mark Johnson of the Washington Retail Association, who says shoplifters know it's often company policy to not pursue.

“Retailers have to balance convenience to consumers and customers, and the theft and loss that they undergo,” Johnson said. “A lot of the people, unfortunately, who are committing these crimes are either mentally ill or have a substance abuse addition, or both.”

The juvenile suspect who slammed into Pratt, according to court documents, had heroin, meth, and marijuana in his pockets when he was booked. Since the incident, the now-adult man has been booked into jail and released three times for theft and assault all in King County.

Meanwhile, the Pratts and their attorneys have a new-found appreciation for retailers' hands-off approach.

“Before I thought, why aren’t they getting the guy?” Joe Baker admitted. “Now I understand why they’re not.”

The Pratts’ daughter said, what happened to her mother also changed her perspective on pursuing suspected shoplifters.

“I understand why it’s important not to endanger other shoppers,” Burkitt said.

Johnson and his retail clients vehemently disagree.

The Washington Retail Association advocated for a bill this past legislative session that would have allowed employees to detain suspects inside stores, rather than wait for them to leave the premises -- as state law now dictates. Called "The Concealment Bill," it would have allowed employees to detain anyone once they see them conceal an item.

Johnson believes the law would have decreased shoplifting throughout Washington State.

However, the bill failed to progress.