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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Targeting Teens

Although I had hoped to reach a "larger" audience with the following post, both local newspapers declined to run it without some heavy, and I mean, heavy editing. Luckily I have a blog so my artistic integrity doesn't need to be compromised and pertinent details can be left intact.

If you see this girl, beware...she's certainly "suspicious" looking...

"Targeting Teens"

When I was a teenager in Brooklyn I had a crush on a boy who worked as a cashier at the local supermarket. I’d pass through his line, sometimes several times a day to buy gum or candy, saving every receipt. If you’re a teenager in the Roanoke Valley who shops you best hold onto your receipt, not for sentimental value, but because there’s a good chance the police will ask you to produce it.

This realization came after my daughter and two of her friends were detained, questioned, and searched at a local supermarket by a police officer on suspicion of shoplifting. It took five sleepless nights before she confided in me.

She said a male friend asked her and her friend to accompany him to the store to buy deodorant. After the boy paid, a police officer stopped them and asked them if they knew why. They said no. He informed them he’d been watching them, thought they were acting suspicious, and believed they had shoplifted.

The officer asked their ages and if their parents were present. They all told him 17, and no. The officer asked for identification and they handed him their licenses. The girls were told to empty out their pocketbooks. An unopened tin of mints was in my daughter’s, and an opened can of frosting was in her friend’s. The officer asked if they stole the items and the girls said no; my daughter had purchased them an hour earlier. The officer asked for the receipt. As the girls frantically searched for the slip of paper the officer led the boy to the aisle where they were acting “suspicious” to see if they damaged anything. (When the boy had found the deodorant he had been searching for, the girls noticed the cap was missing. They looked for the cap and found a broken one on the shelf. The cap was switched out, they proceeded to the check-out and paid, and then were stopped.)

When the officer returned with the boy my daughter produced the receipt she had found crumpled inside the change she had crammed in her front pocket. Before the officer handed back their licenses he wrote down their information. My daughter’s friend asked if he would be calling their parents to which he replied, “That’s not necessary. This never happened, unless you want it to have happened, in which case, it happened.” It happened. The kids were released.

My daughter relayed this story through tears adding, “Why do I feel like a criminal? I didn’t do anything wrong. It was so humiliating.” Disturbed, my husband and I paid a visit to the supermarket the following Saturday. I was shocked to hear two managers claim they didn’t know the name of the confronting officer, nor have a log of who had been patrolling the store at the time of the incident. I refused to back down and asked, “Are you telling me that anyone can put on a uniform, patrol your aisles, stop teenage girls, search them and take down their personal information without the parents being notified? How do I know it’s not some psycho who will now be stalking my daughter? Is this your store’s policy?” Shortly thereafter I was handed the officer’s name.

When I requested to file a complaint I got the run around again. I informed them I was not leaving until my concerns were documented. I was brought upstairs to file an “incident report” which was geared more to pointing the finger at my daughter than complaining about the incident. I asked for a copy of what the manager had typed and was denied. We left.

To the officer’s credit, I did receive a phone call a couple of hours later. I expressed my concern that we hadn’t been called before my daughter was searched and asked if that was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. He explained it didn’t apply because he felt he had reasonable cause to stop them. They were acting “suspicious” -- the male walked back and forth a few times in an aisle, stopped at a shelf, and took something off it. In my eyes that’s called shopping. Then the three of them huddled together and my daughter intentionally turned her back to the camera blocking his view. Since she is 5’1” and 113 pounds, I guess her girth would make her the ideal “screen” to block a camera she didn’t know was focusing on her. I pointed out the boy paid for the item, but the officer felt he did so because he spotted security nearby. I didn’t know police were also trained at the Kreskin Academy of Mind Reading.

I asked the officer what would have happened if my daughter did not have her receipt. What if she would have thrown it out along with the bag? He said they would have checked the debit and credit card records. She doesn’t own a credit or debit card. What if she had bought those mints at another store and didn’t have the receipt? She would have been charged with shoplifting. Farewell to the 50+ college offers she’s received. I was informed had drugs been found in her pocketbook she would have been arrested.

I’m unfamiliar with the law, the supermarket's and police policy regarding juveniles being accused of shoplifting, but I’m troubled I was not called before she was searched. My daughter dumped out her bag because she has been taught to respect and listen to the police. It was acquiescence to a claim of authority. Is she allowed to deny the officer’s command and request parental notification without the assumption she is trying to hide something? I was assured had she been charged I would have been called. So why was her personal information written down after she was cleared?

The officer stated that 99% of the suspects he stops have committed a crime. It’s not my contention there aren’t problems with teenagers and shoplifting. If there wasn’t, the police wouldn’t be working overtime at supermarkets guarding 99 cent tins of mints. But just because they are teenagers, that doesn’t make them juvenile delinquents. I could fill a commentary solely on my daughter’s character, academic and community service record.

I knew helicopter store clerks hover over teens as they shop, but I am disheartened to discover police target teens as soon as they walk through the door, and sometimes they don’t get that far. My daughter stated she and two other friends were denied access to this same store over a year ago by a police officer (she doesn’t know if it was the same one or not) purely based on their looks.

I hope everyone uses our experience as a teachable moment. Teens acting “silly” could be misconstrued as acting “suspicious.” I wonder how many other innocent teens have gone through a similar experience -- feeling bullied, afraid, ashamed, and confused, and their parents have no idea. Parents, talk to your children. Teens, talk to your parents. Everyone, save your receipts! If you don’t, you might find yourself placed on a No Shop Terror List.


  1. Read Jeff Artis' account of when they tried to nail him for shoplifting in Kmart.
    Not that different, really, except for age, sex and race.
    Scroll down to the Feb. 9 entry.

  2. Anon, a couple of differences...Jeff does not say he was detained and searched. And Jeff is not a minor. Sadly, both parties were profiled.

  3. Anon, a couple of other differences as well...the store employees followed Jeff but did not outright accuse him of shoplifting. These kids were accused and stopped inside the store, after they paid. Jeff was not asked to produce a receipt from something either. Jeff was rightly angry at store employees, but not intimidated as the teens were by a police officer. And Jeff's future, including college plans, would probably not have gotten as screwed up as these kids' would have had they been falsely charged if the mint receipt wasn't found.

  4. Late last year I was with my son one night when we stopped at Kroger/Towers for something -- it was a single item and I can't remember what it was. We went through the self-checkout, and I skipped getting a bag, which would only have to be thrown out at home. And we hustled out of there because we were in a hurry.

    But I did snatch the receipt, thank goodness.

    Zach and I walked outside the store. The receipt was in the same hand as the item. And a store employee stopped us on the sidewalk about 20 feet from the door outside the door. I think he was a manager. He most definitely was not one of the guys who brings the carts back in.

    "Excuse me sir!" he called after us, but I didn't realize he was talking to me (my back was turned).

    He ran up to us. "Excuse me, sir!"

    I stopped.

    "What do you want?" I asked.

    He motioned to the item in my hand.

    "Did you pay for that?"

    "Yes," I said.

    "Do you have a receipt for it?" he asked.

    "Yes," I said.

    "Can I see it?" he asked.

    I slipped it out from under my thumb, which was holding it up against the item, which was worth something like $3. It was a jar of BBQ sauce or something like that.

    "Here it is," I said coldly. "Are you satisfied I didn't steal it now?"

    "Oh, oh, I'm sorry, I just thought . . ."

    "Can I leave now? I'm in a hurry," I asked even more frostily.

    "Sure, uh, I thought . . ." he started.

    "Come on, Zach," I said. "Let's get out of here. This guy thought we were thieves."

    (I guess this is a long way of saying, it happens to middle-aged folks, too. Not that that's any excuse).