Public Comment

A Sad Lesson From Berkeley Bowl: What Not To Do

By Tirtho Mahmood
Wednesday October 13, 2010 - 12:06:00 PM

In the Indian Subcontinent you should never get caught shop-lifting--no, not for legal reasons, for your own physical safety. Most of the time, the mob takes sadistic pleasure in beating up the suspect--sometimes the suspect dies, even though it might later be proven to be a mistake. 

I know, because I originally hail from that part of the world. 

In USA, I am sure nobody really beats up a shoplifting suspect. However, today, at Berkeley Bowl, a sad episode reminded me of such a case—not exactly like in the subcontinent, but similar in overreaction and an extra dose of zeal . 

It involves a female suspect and the reaction of the store security personnel. Following is what I saw, in present tense: 

The day is today, October 9th, 2010. I come out from the adjacent cafe of Berkeley Bowl (BB) West, after finishing my bowl of rice, late in the afternoon—it could be nearly four or past four PM. 

I approach my bike, and hear some commotion next to me. Like most other shoppers I shut it out and keep moving. Then I sense something is not right. I hear a female voice "get off me, " I see the wondering gaze of a fellow male shopper wearing green shirt looking behind and past me. I follow his gaze. 

We both look at an almost violent scenario unfolding. Violent not in the context of blood and guts, but in the manner that two (actually one person; the other person is I guess assisting him) people are confronting a customer at the exit of the store. 

One young male, allegedly a member of the security personnel and his female companion, both of African descent, were in objectionable physical proximity to a Caucasian female in her possible twenties. 

She has some grocery items in her hands. I remember a half gallon carton of orange juice. From the conversation, it seems that she, the Caucasian, is suspected of shoplifting. 

(I am mentioning the physical description for authenticity's sake, the race should not matter; I am dark enough.) 

The male was carrying a pair of handcuffs and he was not in any particular identifiable uniform. So, he is a not peace officer, that much is understandable. 

I keep calm and try to assess the situation. The male employee of Berkeley Bowl (with handcuffs of course, and who also has a hair tied up like a pony tail) is grabbing the female by arms. The suspect is not trying to escape; she is, so far I understand, trying to argue or protest, and twisting her body to create a distance. 

The BB security person keeps close to her physically and she keeps saying "let go of me." 

The female helper from the Berkeley Bowl (a possible chaperone, since the suspect is a female}, tries to act friendly, but the problem is, the male keeps his physical contact in a fairly objectionable manner, and is imposing. He tends to be dragging the suspect. 

And that's what I find seriously wrong—grabbing someone physically, even though there is no indication that the person is running away. 

I myself work in a retail environment, and I myself had the experience of both being a suspect and also suspecting someone mistakenly (which I will forever regret). However, I do not think anyone suspected of shoplifting should be physically pushed around unless there is a clear ground and necessity to do so. 

In the case of Berkeley Bowl incident this afternoon, there was no ground and necessity to do so. The suspect was not walking away, not posing any threat to the BB employee (her hands were kind of full), she was trying to avoid physical contact with the male security employee. 

I did not hear him speak professionally i.e. "Ma'am, would you please come inside. We have reasons to believe you have something that is not paid for. If not, we may have to call the police." Nor did he have any professional bearing in his conduct afterward. However, after continuous insistence from the suspect, the male employee of Berkeley Bowl released his grip on the side of the suspect’s arm, yet stayed close to her. 

I am not a lawyer, I do not know exactly how much right Berkeley Bowl was legally in the manner its employee behaved towards a suspect. But I know what is morally wrong. THE SUSPECT WAS NOT RUNNING AWAY AS SHE WAS APPROACHED; TOUCHING HER, GRABBING HER SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED. 

I understand Berkeley Bowl is like any other retail business, here to make money. But treating another human being in a such a manner puts them almost at the same level of mobs one may see in the Subcontinent , which I mentioned at the beginning of this piece--relatively speaking. 

Later I called the store security, they seemed to be reluctant to discuss the matter; so I asked for someone higher in the food-chain—possibly a manager. His name is Larry. He was not present; but a supervisor named Tuan responded. 

I asked Tuan about Berkeley Bowl's standard protocol or operating procedure about shoplifting suspects, if it had room for physically confronting a suspect. He claimed that, "No." He agreed with me that physical contact of that sort is unacceptable. He also told me that he was not aware of the situation yet. 

Then he asked me "What if she did shoplift?" I told him "Maybe she is a shoplifter, maybe not. Your security needs to find that out and confirm it. But does it give them the right to grab her and pull her as I saw happening outside? She was not walking away from them and your security personnel were not peace officers in uniform either." 

He relented "No," and suggested I call back on Monday to speak with Larry. I have nothing against Berkeley Bowl, but I think at least a few of their employees need some training in human as well as humane relations. Which seemed totally lacking today. 

Moreover, I think any retail business's security unit members who are in charge of preventing shoplifting should have an authorization badge as well as some sort of identification when they approach anyone suspected of wrongdoing. If not, then, every suspect has the right to avoid questioning, since the questioner is unknown and could be a threat. 

Once again, I am not a lawyer, I do not have the cunning of one, but I am a reasonable person. My reason finds the Berkeley Bowl's protocol displayed this afternoon totally uncivilized.
I am sure they have security cameras inside and outside, and they can easily replay what took place next to the entry door, and judge for themselves. 

I am not here to take side of the suspect, but I take her side when it comes to human dignity and civil rights--and that is, to be treated as not-guilty until proven, and to be treated respectfully at all times--even when proven guilty. Law punishes, we don't. It's sad to see Berkeley Bowl forgot to impart this basic norm of courtesy in its security team. Well, at least it teaches us what not to do. I hope other stores in the vicinity will learn the same.