Businesses see shoplifting spike

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks Fuzhou’s Chinese Buffet Manager Fang Pin Huang was injured and has bandages on her head and hands after she chased a group of teens who ran out without paying last Monday.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

She was frustrated and angry when she grabbed onto the car door.

She remembers telling them, “You cannot just run away! We’ll call your parents.”

Then she heard one of the teens yelling “go, go, go” to the driver.

The door was pulled from her hands and she felt herself being pushed to the ground, slamming to the pavement as the car turned and sped off. As she lay on the ground in shock and pain, an oncoming vehicle narrowly missed hitting her.

Days later, with bandages covering wounds on her head and hands, Fang Pin Huang is still angry, still frustrated and still shaken over Monday’s incident.

“I cannot believe these kids keep doing this,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

A manager at Fuzhou’s’ Chinese Buffet, Huang said the restaurant has lost $300 since New Year’s to people eating, then skipping out on the check.

Sometimes it’s adults, but most often it’s teens — it seems like a game to them, she said.

Many times, employees have called police with the license plate numbers of people who have sneaked out on meal tickets. But Huang said they have become frustrated because they never hear of arrests in the cases.

That frustration reached a breaking point when four teens came in last Monday and spent two hours eating from the buffet, then left without paying their $30 ticket.

Huang ran after them and when she spotted a car with the passengers and drivers slouched down in their seats moving through a nearby parking lot, she grabbed the door, hoping to stop them.

In the end, all she got was scrapes, bruises and a sketchy description of the vehicle to give police.

Because of the numerous incidents, the restaurant is considering changing its policy to require customers to pay before they eat. But Huang said they are concerned about alienating or upsetting their paying customers.

And due to Huang’s injuries, employees are now supposed to do their best to get license plate numbers and call police. No more chasing suspects.

In New Mexico, merchants are protected by the law when it comes to apprehending a suspected thief or shoplifter. As long as its conducted in a “reasonable manner”, merchants cannot be prosecuted criminally, nor are they subject to civil suits for detaining a person they believe has taken or concealed merchandise.

But whether or not to pursue and attempt to detain a thief is a judgment call. Often businesses have policies in place or express a preference that their employees avoid it.

Because, as in Huang’s situation, the law can’t protect employees from being hurt.

“It’s one of those things where they’re taking a chance doing it. That person can become violent and may or may not be armed,” police Capt. Patrick Whitney said.

Hastings Customer Service Team Leader Jim Dalley said his store has a couple of associates who are more experienced and willing to take the risk of chasing a shoplifter and holding them until police arrive. For the majority of employees, the prescribed course of action is, “to get a group of associates around (someone suspected of shoplifting), follow them around the store all day and all night,” and stand at the exits, Dalley said. The procedure puts them on notice that their actions have been observed.

“We do not encourage our people to run them down. They could have a blade or a gun,” said Dalley. “We don’t want our people hurt at all.”

Hastings also relies heavily on a surveillance system, Dalley said, and frequently rearranges cameras to keep the advantage over particularly clever thieves.

At Claire’s Boutique in North Plains Mall, Manager Elouisa Vega said she catches her share of shoplifters. Its a near-daily occurrence, she said. But company policy dictates she leave the heavy lifting to mall security or police.

“I’m good at catching them, that’s for sure,” she said, explaining once she spots a shoplifter, she alerts officers, who then handle detention.

Vega said the only suspects she will typically confront are young children, often having a conversation with them about their actions.

But, “When I’m dealing with teenagers and adults, I don’t cut them any slack… we prosecute any shoplifter, regardless of the amount,” Vega said.

Even though the law protects merchants, leaving the physical part of catching shoplifters to police and trained professionals is the most advised course of action, according to Whitney. The concern should always be safety.

“They could get hurt,” said Whitney. “There’s a reason why police officers have guns and pepper spray and (take) defensive tactic courses .”

“We’re trained to apprehend people and we have the tools to do it,” Whitney said. “If you want to be a vigilante, then be prepared for the consequences. We’ve got people out here (who) are violent and they do have knives and guns.”