S.F. is Still On Edge Over Shoplifting. Can Downtown Businesses Stop Thieves Without Risking Lives?

At a Metro PCS store near City Hall in San Francisco, clerk Maria Gonzalez said shoplifters invade at least twice a week, at times jumping over the counter to swipe phones, cords and anything else they can snatch.

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Sometimes they wear hoodies and masks, but other times, “they just come in like they are.” If the thieves get too close or act aggressively, she said, employees like her have no choice but to pepper-spray them. A lone security guard patrols a stretch of Market Street where her store is, funded by area merchants, she said — but it’s not enough.

“We tell them to get out, but they’re going to take what they’re going to take,” Gonzalez said. “More than anything, I feel scared for my life.”

Once again — after a Walgreens guard shot and killed an unarmed man who had allegedly shoplifted, and after a nearby Whole Foods closed, citing theft as a significant reason — San Francisco store owners, employees and guards say they are grappling with a difficult question: In a city struggling with a high rate of property crime, what is the best way to deter petty theft?

Do you confront people suspected of shoplifting or do you steer clear, knowing such interactions can escalate from a minor, often desperate crime to an encounter that can be dangerous for both parties?

Relatives of the 24-year-old man killed outside the downtown Walgreens on April 27, Banko Brown, say the tragedy has shown that merchants shouldn’t hire gun-carrying guards. The fatal shooting prompted a change in policy for the guards at the store, the San Francisco Standard reported, who were told shortly before the incident to confront shoplifters; afterward, they were ordered to stand down and leave their firearms at home.  

On an earnings call earlier this year, a Walgreens corporate executive said the company had seen a slight reduction in “shrink,” the loss of inventory attributed to employee theft, shoplifting, fraud, or other factors. During the call, Walgreens CFO James Kehoe said the company was moving from using security guards to hiring off duty law enforcement officers to guard stores because the security companies Walgreens was using had “proven to be largely ineffective.”

Many merchants, meanwhile, say they remain in a no-win situation, not wanting to resort to violence to stop shoplifters but also loathe to rack up thousands of dollars in losses while sending a message to would-be thieves that they have free reign.

“Merchants are completely fed up with having their businesses vandalized, or being robbed over and over,” said Ryen Motzek, president of the Mission Merchants Association. “But that still doesn’t justify taking a human life.”

He said many businesses defend themselves “because the police can’t. And the response might not be a well-trained response. It creates ugliness all around, this loop of dysfunction. I don’t see anybody winning.”

Many specifics about Brown’s death remain unclear. District Attorney Brooke Jenkins initially declined to prosecute the guard, Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony, saying evidence showed he acted in self-defense. But as outrage grew over the decision, Jenkins backtracked and said she might still file charges. She has refused to release video of the fatal encounter, saying it would be unethical to do so because the case is under investigation.

Meanwhile, the controversy ignited by Brown’s killing has served to intensify the debate about the role of security guards in San Francisco. 

After the shooting Supervisor Dean Preston introduced legislation seeking to amend the city’s police code to clarify that guards are not to unholster their weapons unless there is an actual and specific threat to a person. The current police code says guards may draw their handgun if there is an actual and specific threat “to person and/or property.”

The first responsibility of a private guard, industry leaders and experts said in interviews, is to minimize risk and loss. But doing that — by physically intervening with a shoplifter, if necessary — can be fraught, and is sometimes barred by policy. Guards don’t know whether a person they suspect is shoplifting might be under the influence of drugs, struggling with mental health issues or carrying a hidden weapon.

In 2021, a video of a man on a bicycle stuffing goods into a trash bag at a San Francisco Walgreens went viral, in part because viewers were shocked no one tried to stop the thief. The man was later arrested and sentenced to 16 months in jail for a series of thefts in the city. But similar videos of open shoplifting have become fairly routine. 

“It can be very dangerous,” said Tom Wong, CEO of Red Dragon Private Security, referring to attempts to stop people they suspect are stealing. In the past year, a security guard was shot dead in Japantown, allegedly by a 15-year-old boy he had escorted out of the neighborhood mall, and another was stabbed at a Walgreens on Powell Street.

Wong’s strategy is simple: “Find the least confrontational approach, the least amount of force needed to get that person out of the store.”

In a perfect world, Wong said, after a security guard spots a shoplifter, he or she would make their presence known, and order the shoplifter to put the item back and leave the store. If the shoplifter refused, then the security guard would summon other store employees, and warn the shoplifter if they didn’t leave they would be arrested for theft. 

If a security guard’s client wants a guard to do more than just be a visible deterrent to shoplifters, they might then actually detain a thief, he said.

Under state law, security guards have the power to enact a “citizens arrest,” but no more. When actually detaining a suspect, a guard is required under state rules to tell the suspect of the intention to arrest them, the cause, and the security guard or private security officer’s authority to make a citizen’s arrest, according to a training manual on the website of the state’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, which regulates California security guards.

The manual also notes security guards should never touch a suspect “except when they are protecting a citizen, protecting their employer’s property, in self-defense, or when necessary to use reasonable force in effecting an arrest.”  

Ideally, Wong and others said, a security guard tries to resolve the situation with words first — and only reaches for a baton, TASER or pepper spray if that doesn’t work. A gun should be a last resort, and only in situations where there is “an imminent threat” to the life of the security guard or others.

Security guards in California must be 18 or older, pass a federal background check. They must also complete a 32-hour training course, and if they want to carry firearms, pass a separate firearms training course that includes qualification at a firing range and a written exam. If they want to carry a baton or pepper spray, they must obtain separate permits for those weapons — and undergo additional training. That compares to police officers who must pass a rigorous police academy — 34 weeks in San Francisco, followed by a 16-week field training program.

Michael Spearman, who runs the Bay Area-based Archangel Solutions security company for CEOs, celebrities and Fortune 50 companies, said giving a gun to anyone with less than excellent training raises potential for trouble.

“You give a guy a hammer, and everything looks like a nail after a while,” he said. “When you’re dealing with angry people, desperate people stealing things or the mentally ill — actually any confrontation — if they are trained correctly in de-escalation, a guard will know what to do. If they’re not, it doesn’t work. 

“Look, police officers get hundreds of hours of training,” he said. “And you’re asking a security guard to get a week or so of training and a gun course and then expect them to do the same job? It’s not practical.”

In interviews in the past week, several security guards in downtown San Francisco said they focused on de-escalation in their jobs. They said they preferred not to be armed because, as one put it, “someone could wrestle the gun from me, and if I have to use it, I don’t want a death on my hands.”

The guards said they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, and The Chronicle granted them anonymity in accordance with its confidential-sources policy.

“The trick is to closely study people when they walk in, see the trouble before it happens, and then go up and politely engage to stop it,” said one guard at a major downtown store.

As she spoke, she nodded at a man walking by in ragged clothes with a bulging backpack under his jacket, mumbling to himself as he eyed merchandise. “Like that guy,” she said. “I will be polite and respectful, but make sure I keep an eye on him.”

Across California, clearance rates for petty larcenies — thefts without the use of force or threat of force — have fallen substantially over the past three decades, records show. In 2019, police across the state solved about 9% of such crimes. In San Francisco, police have solved roughly 3.6% of larcenies reported in 2023, a slight increase from the same time last year.

Some law enforcement officials say shop owners and security guards have been hamstrung by local and state policies that have reduced punishment for nonviolent offenders, and emboldened them as a result. The argument is rejected by progressives who say petty theft is often driven by poverty and inequality, and favor rehabilitation over incarceration.

“If they’re not going to prosecute (the shoplifters) why are you putting yourself at risk?” asked Art Acevedo, a former head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association who has led police departments in Texas, Florida and Colorado.

Some shopkeepers say shoplifting is just part of doing business in San Francisco. Mohsen Ali Mused — who keeps a machete, pepper spray and a baseball bat behind the counter of his Tenderloin Market and Deli —  said he doesn’t employ guards despite losing what he estimates to be thousands of dollars in merchandise to shoplifting every month. He said he’s got the weapons in case someone tries to rob him — not for dealing with shoplifters.

“I’m the owner, like the Godfather, and I know how to talk to them,” he said as he cheerfully greeted a mix of well-dressed and ragged customers coming in the door. “Seventy percent of those people who want to steal probably don’t have their brains working right. They’re hungry, they’re desperate.”

He said sometimes when people ask him for food, it gives it to them. “It’s the right thing to do,” he added.

Sherilyn Adams, head of the San Francisco nonprofit that in 2019 opened the nation’s first homeless shelter for trans youth like Banko Brown, said the problem of unhoused people shoplifting won’t end until there are enough drug rehab, aid and housing programs for street dwellers.

“It’s poverty. People would not have to steal food and basic needs if things were readily available to them, said Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services.  

Not every homeless person shoplifts, of course. But Adams acknowledged that some of those boosting from stores do it to get money for drugs or alcohol.

Shoplifted goods are sold everyday by housed and unhoused people alike.  

Those selling the goods have little fear of being punished. They generally say they boost and sell for survival.

“Panhandling doesn’t get me enough for my food and drugs,” said Antonio Ortega, 33, as he spread out his latest haul of spices, coloring markers and socks on Turk Street. “You think I like shoplifting? Hell no. But most of us doing it are doing bare essentials to get by.”

He said he often gets questioned by security guards, “but they can’t do anything, really.”

“It’s brutal out here,” he added, explaining that he needs to boost to buy food and drugs.  

James McGee, 41, lives outside and is a regular at the Tenderloin Market and Deli. He said he shoplifts food, mostly sweet snacks to ease the craving for heroin and meth. But one place he leaves alone is Mused’s.

“Moh is a really good guy, and if I’m really hungry he’ll give me chips, soda, things like that,” he said, grinning while holding up a bag of popcorn. “Moh gave me this. He understands. All he asks is that you be clean and don’t disrespect the store. 

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

Comments

  1. Stupid story….security guards are a waste of money….if it were legal to start shooting looters and thieves, the problem would solve itself…I’m old enough to remember when it was legal and society was a lot better off then

  2. 20 gauge shotgun with rock salt. Aim for the legs. If they pull out a gun aim higher.
    SF is swirling down the drain and nobody is coming to the rescue. Too many people living on the dole, gaming a system that generates dependency. Our schools are teaching this is a good thing.This is a preview of America becoming a third world socialist authoritarian country. Far left Incumbents are causing all of this to happen and we are still voting for them. Sick.

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