At a time when the national media is full of stories about organizations and politicians trying to undermine our justice system by criticizing, vilifying, undermining, and doing everything possible to make the police officers of our country look bad, along comes a story which is more indicative of what the police really are all about.
Saturday, Dec. 12, was a typical day on the second shift (3 to 11 p.m.) at the Lima Police Department. Too little manpower, and too many calls for service. As usual, calls were being prioritized in order of their importance, and also as usual, people sometimes were getting impatient because they had to wait.
When a call came in at 5 p.m/ from the Wal-Mart store on Allentown Road, it was determined that officers should be dispatched right away. A shoplifter has been caught and detained, a situation where any resistance on the part of the shoplifter can easily escalate to the point where someone, either the shoplifter or a store employee, could be hurt. The quicker the response, the less chance of that happening.
Three officers answered the call, led by LPD Sergeant Nick Hart. Upon arrival, they determined that a 40ish woman had been detained by store employees after being caught failing to scan numerous items at one of the self-scan checkouts. She would scan an item, then place more items in a bag without scanning them. The result was that the bags contained far more items that had not been scanned than items that were scanned.
When the officers arrived, unlike the typical defiant attitude of a detained shoplifter, the woman looked down at the floor when she spotted them. She appeared to show genuine remorse and shame at was happening. As described by Sgt. Hart, “She did not even give us a dirty look.”
The officers began to take information about the incident, and when asked why she was stealing, the woman said that she needed food and a few Christmas items for her family, and only had $40 to last her until the next paycheck, which was not enough for what she needed.
Usually, the shoplifter would immediately be arrested and taken into custody. But Sgt. Hart was moved by the woman’s story, enough that he decided to look just a little bit deeper than normal into the situation.
He found that the woman had no criminal record, and had never been in any trouble with the law. Her husband was disabled and unable to work. While she did have a job, it was low-paying and hardly sufficient to support the family, which included three children.
The officers also went through the items that she had taken, and found what they described as food necessities, with no expensive or frivolous items of any kind. There were also a few other items, such as gloves and inexpensive toys, the type of things that would be appreciated at Christmas by a family that did not have a lot, and wouldn’t expect a lot.
In evaluating the situation, one thought that struck Sgt. Hart was that if this woman were to be arrested, she probably would lose her job, greatly worsening an already bad situation. He just didn’t want that to happen. He asked the Wal-Mart personnel if they would be willing to just forget the situation with no legal action if he were to pay the woman’s bill. They agreed, and he paid the bill, totaling a little over $258.
When this story hit Facebook, there was an outpouring of offers of help for the family from people who were moved by the woman’s situation, much like Sgt. Hart had been. But when the woman was called and asked if she needed additional help, she simply requested that other people just pay it forward to help someone else who might be in need.
If this story sounds unusual to you, it isn’t. It happens every day in our country, and not just at Christmas time. It just doesn’t attract the attention of a media more interested in showing the police in a negative light.
Don Stratton is a retired inspector for the Lima Police Department. He writes a guest column for The Lima News, often focusing on police matters.