News10NBC Investigates scourge of retail theft, and what’s being done about it

Retail theft: One manager’s story showcases wide-ranging issue

Retail theft: One manager's story showcases wide-ranging issue

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A former manager at Big Lots in Irondequoit says he followed a shoplifter into a parking lot trying to help police catch him, but he didn’t get a reward.

He got fired.

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” Pat Guider said. “And it ends up getting me fired.”

Shoplifting is a huge problem in New York. In one year, retailers lost $4.4 billion to theft and the state lost $176 million in sales tax.

On May 10, a shoplifter tried to leave the Big Lots store on Hudson Avenue. Store Manager Pat Guider says he saw the shoplifter take a swing at his assistant manager. Guider says he followed the man at a distance through the parking lot relaying his location to 911 in the hopes police could arrest him.

The shoplifter got away. On May 29, Guider got fired.

“What I saw is that he took a swing, like a punch at (the assistant manager),” Guider said from his kitchen table at his house in Irondequoit. He swung his clinched fist in an upper cut as he described what he saw.

That’s why Guider says he followed the shoplifter out of the store.

“I let people who shoplift leave the store every day. Every day. We just put it in the system like they ask us to do. This was an assault. This wasn’t shoplifting. This was an assault.”

Pat Guider

Despite 20 years with the company and a positive review in March, the company did not see it the way Guider did. Two weeks after the incident, Guider says he was called to his district manager’s office and fired, and he says he was told it was because of the shoplifting incident.

Berkeley Brean, chief investigative reporter: “Do you think you did the right thing?”
Pat Guider, fired manager: “I think I did the right and just thing. The right and just thing.”

This is not the first retail store manager fired over how they handled a shoplifter. It’s not even the first Big Lots manager fired. Just Google it and you’ll see the story of the store manager in California.

Brean tried to call Big Lots, but there’s no phone number to reach the CEO or communication chief. He emailed the company on Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday evening, and again on Friday morning.  

Brean asked why Guider was fired. What is the company policy? Is following a shoplifter a fireable offense? What training do managers get for shoplifters?

As of the writing of this story, Big Lots has not replied. However, a poster in the Big Lots lunchroom warns all employees to “never leave the store to pursue, detain, or identify a customer.”

Brean took the issue to labor lawyer Paul Keneally at the law firm of Underberg & Kessler.

Brean: “Here, a guy goes out to try to help police track down a shoplifter. And two weeks later he gets fired. How does that happen?”
Paul Keneally, partner: “Yeah, that can happen and maybe a little bit of the fault of lawyers in the way this country is so sue happy is that the company is probably considering the liability of any sort of interaction between the perpetrator and store employee.”

“So they have a rule in place that the employees are not to do anything, and it’s unfortunate because it sounds like this person was trying to do the right thing,” Keneally said.

“So, I did not put myself in jeopardy. I did not put any shoppers in jeopardy,” Guider said as we stood in the parking lot where he followed the shoplifter.

He pointed out the Dunkin’ store where he and police found the shopping cart but lost sight of the shoplifter. Irondequoit Police say the assistant manager declined medical care.

Now, Guider and his wife are trying to figure out how to get health insurance. They still have two boys in college and at 62, Guider’s not sure how easy it will be to find another job.

“The good thing is we have a huge faith in God, a huge faith in God, and everything will work out. It’s just going to be difficult. It’s going to be difficult,” Guider says.

Store policies and what they mean for employees

What happened to that store manager exemplifies why New York’s retail workers union is pushing lawmakers to support a bill that would require training in violence prevention.

News10NBC’s Deanna Dewberry chatted with Josh Kellermann, the director of public policy for New York’s Union for Retail Workers. He explained why so many retailers have zero tolerance policies when it comes to confronting shoplifters.

“Once you leave the property, you’re no longer protected by the insurance plan of the company. You know what I mean? You’re operating as an individual rather than as a worker. You’re outside the scope of your employment, so that could put direct legal liability on that person,” says Kellerman. “There are certainly reasons why that policy exists.”

“Again, I still think that this is less a problem of whether this is the right policy or not, but rather it’s that workers need to be adequately trained in how to understand these dynamic and difficult situations.

Josh Kellermann

He believes Pat Guider’s situation makes the case for the need for worker training, and it would give clear parameters for handling situations where workers or customers are at risk.

What law enforcement is doing

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office has a specialized taskforce that targets retail theft. News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke rode along with that team recently to see how it works. 

The taskforce conducts details that last for a two to four days at a time, bouncing between different retailers in big and small towns across the county. Shoppers wouldn’t even know they’re there, but shoplifters will if they leave the store with stolen stuff.

Plainclothes deputies go into a store’s security office with loss prevention officers to monitor cameras and look for shoplifters. They radio outside to waiting teams of deputies when they see someone stealing.

“We try to use overwhelming numbers. People will see us on occasion and say, ‘Oh, it took seven of you to stop that person?’ No, it didn’t take seven of us to stop that person. It took seven of us to make sure nobody fought, nobody got hurt, and nobody ran away,” explains Investigator Sergeant David Bolton of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. 

Occasionally, people try to run.

“They’ll tell us, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were loss prevention. I would have stopped if I knew you were the police.’ So, they’re under the impression that the store is not going to stop them as long as they don’t stop. So, they don’t,” explains Bolton.

Truthfully, the impression isn’t all that far off. Even though the stores are basically begging for help, in most cases, corporate offices insist on strict protocols.

“Different stores have different policies. They don’t want something very overt. Maybe they want something more covert. They don’t want arrests on their properties,” explains Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter. 

“We’re working hand in glove with the retailers.”

Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter

WATCH: Sheriff Todd Baxter witnesses grand larceny

More than 200 shoplifters have been charged as part of these details over the past two years, but a majority are released with a ticket. It’s not uncommon, according to the sheriff, for the same suspects to be arrested for larceny during different details. That’s why the sheriff’s office has now been using what’s called a “harm plus harm” provision in the law to try and hold more suspects.

“That allows us to detain and bring someone before a judge for a bail application if they’re already out and they’re repeating a harm offense and they consider larceny a harm,” explains Baxter. 

The hope is to break what is a cycle for some suspects by helping them get into drug treatment, for example.

“If we can shut down millions of dollars on larcenies, that’s millions of dollars of inflation we’re all not paying for. We’re all paying for that, and the point I’m trying to get through to my legislators is it’s the poorest people on our community who are really paying for it. By our blessings, we can afford an inflation of four to five dollars every time we go to Home Depot or Target. Some people on a fixed income, some people cannot afford them. So, we’re all making them pay for criminal activity we could control pretty easy,” he Baxter says.