The shoplifting case of celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson has hit the headlines and got me thinking about a previous incarnation of mine – as a security guard in supermarkets about 20 years ago.
First, let me say something categorically. There is NO such thing as a typical shoplifter. Each case is different. Some steal out of greed. Some steal out of need. It is also true that there ARE some seriously depressed people who have exceptionally low self-esteem and need the adrenaline rush, the kick, the buzz, of achieving something that is illicit and thrilling. Unfortunately, like most such buzzes, it's short-lived.
Worrall Thompson is by no means the first celebrity shoplifter. Richard Burton was a serial shoplifter as he himself admitted in his diaries, targeting Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road and subsequently revealed in Melvyn Bragg's biography.
A particularly sad "celebrity" case was that of Isobel Barnett, a popular and genteel lady who became a household name on What's My Line on British TV in the 1950s and 1960s. She stole a can of tuna and a carton of cream worth 87 pence from her village grocer and was prosecuted. She committed suicide several days later. This was back in 1980.
No case of shoplifting – unless the person has been violent – should be punishable with a prison term, in my opinion. Much better to have them serve a community sentence order or the like. The prisons are simply too crowded to jail people who have stolen a few items from shops.
Anyway, having said that, here are a few of my memorable recollections of shoplifting.
A man in an impeccable pin striped suit and RAF handlebar moustache stole some Duracell batteries from Texas Homecare Acton. He claimed he had simply "forgotten" to pay. But he went so red and his voice was so tremulous that he was clearly lying. To my surprise the store manager let him go. A black guy who saw this whole incident said "if that had been a black man you would never have let him walk away." Probably true! But it was not only his colour that played a part in the manager's decision. I suspect it was also class.
He walked in and put some pork sausages in the inside pocket of his jacket and then walked out of the supermarket in Chingford pretending he couldn't find what he had been looking for. I probably would have let him go but the plain clothes store detective had spotted him. When we asked him why he had stolen them, he said he was "hungry". And he DID seem exceptionally wan and emaciated. Sad!
One case I did turn a blind eye to was an old woman of about 75 who bought a loaf of bread and then slipped a jar of coffee into her pocket. I allowed her to walk out and simply turned the other way. Nobody else had seen her. I simply didn't have the heart to stop her. So it cost the supermarket chain a few pounds. In any case it's extremely unlikely that a prosecution would have been successful. There was some kind of sheltered accommodation nearby and I think she was probably living there.
One of the most brazen case occurred in April 1992 in Tesco Leyton High Road when a young, slightly drunken young guy strode into this little supermarket and stole some meat from behind the counter. He made no attempt to conceal it, simply shouting "there's a recession on" when we shouted at him to put it back. He raced out of the store and was brought down by another security guard. Yes, Texas Leyton High Road was deemed so dangerous that we had two security guards!
These are people who thieve every day and regard their thieving simply as a job that has to be done. Sometimes they work in teams. Arrests and prosecutions are merely occupational hazards to these people. On occasions they would get over-cocky and arrogant and they'd be caught that way. Sometimes they would be involved in an elaborate "game" with the people they know to be store detectives and security personnel. By this I mean they would steal something, place it in their pocket and then replace it on the shelf just before leaving the store, so trying to get the store detectives in trouble. Nasty people!
The man strode into Texas Acton and took the package, which contained a power drill, apart with great delicacy. I was standing over him the whole time. He was trying to remove the alarm bar code that gave off a signal at the checkouts. Eventually he took a tiny part of the drill and put it in his pocket. I decided he was simply too (un) self-conscious and brazen so I stopped him. He refused to say one word when the police arrived.
These little incidents are all about different types of shoplifters. No one should "excuse" such thefts but at the same time perhaps we should reflect a bit more carefully before we judge people like Worral Thompson too severely.