From The Ethics Alarms “Awwww!” Files: The Happy Shoplifter

At a Whole Foods in New York City,  a woman attempted to steal some food and was detained by supermarket security officers. Three police officers on the scene, however, chipped in and paid for the food she had been seen slipping into her shopping bag.

Naturally the heartwarming scene was  captured in a photo, showing the woman’s tears of gratitude. Their deed, as well as the woman breaking into tears, was captured in a photo that was shot by a customer who described himself as heartened by the unexpected gesture. “It was a nice moment for, you know, people, it was compassionate and the woman obviously was really grateful,” the amateur photographer said.

The police department approves, I guess.  NYPD Chief Terence Monahan tweeted, “Cops like Lt. Sojo and Officers Cuevas and Rivera of the Strategic Response Group are the kind-hearted cops who quietly do good deeds for New Yorkers in need.”

Is this the new department policy then? When officers decide that a thief is in genuine need, they will now pay for the merchandise stolen? I may have rolled out of bed bitter and jaded, but this seems like the “Awww!” Factor, where sentimentally appealing conduct is mistaken for ethical conduct. From the Ethics Alarms glossary:

The “Awww!” Factor: The “Awww!” Factor occurs when particular conduct seems loving, caring and nice, but is in fact unethical in one or more respects. Such conduct creates such a positive emotion-based sentimental response that valid ethical analysis becomes difficult or impossible. It is frequently accompanied by the rationalization known as “The Saint’s Excuse,” which endorses unethical conduct that is the result of good intentions.

The police rewarded the woman for getting caught stealing food. Their job is law enforcement, not deciding when breaking the law should be ignored. What happens if she does the same thing again? What happens when other hungry, financially struggling shoppers steal food? Why shouldn’t they expect police to treat them in the same generous, compassionate manner?

Does it matter whether these free groceries-winning shoplifters were stealing basic staples or strip steaks? Was she stealing the food for herself or her children? Did she have a job? Would it have mattered? Did the officers ask? If they did, then they were setting criteria for the new “police will pay for your stolen groceries” program.

If another shopper was stealing food at the same time and came up to the officers demanding that they pay her bill too, what would they have done? Would it matter if the shopper-thief was young, white, or male? I don’t know how it is in New York City, but in my neighborhood, Whole Foods is not the cheapest place to shop for groceries by a long shot.

If the grocery store owner or staff wanted to give the woman a break, I would give them a break, and conclude that if they want to send the message that shoplifters are not only welcome but rewarded, fine. They can deal with that dilemma of their own making. The police, however, are agents of the city and its government. Either their actions are consistent with their duties and municipal policy, or they aren’t.

The cops’ conduct violates two out of the three basic ethics systems. Sure, it’s consistent with the Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule is notoriously useless in evaluating law enforcement. Kant’s Rule of Universality dings the practice of the police paying for what a shoplifter lifts instantly. Could this be a universal standard? No; surely not. Utilitarianism also rejects the gesture.  Random kindness has to fail the balancing test when fairness, equity, duty and the public good are in the  scales on the other side.

I fear that this episode is not a random anomaly, but the sign of something more dangerous, a creeping ethics blindness promoted by various compassion demagogues. Oh, you’re breaking U.S. immigration laws because you want a “better life”? Come on in, then, and welcome to free education for your kids, social programs, a drivers’ license and general applause for your pluck! Oh, you have borrowed more to go to college than you can pay back? Well, you deserve to have those debts paid by everyone else. As for those who paid back their loans, they don’t need any help, do they?

Every news source reporting on the story (that I have seen) emphasized the compassion and kindness of the officers, who are being hailed as “heroes.” That, I maintain, is because most journalists and their editors aren’t that bright, and have the ethics analytical skill of the average New York mayor.

Substituting “Awww!” and emotion for laws, standards and integrity is the slippery slope to chaos. Or am I just a warped, frustrated old ethicist, to paraphrase George Bailey?

23 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms “Awwww!” Files: The Happy Shoplifter

  1. I don’t think you’re a warped frustrated old ethicist. I also don’t think law enforcement should set precedents like that.

    On the other hand, law enforcement gets so little positive press these days that I’m inclined to Awww at these kinds of stories, too.

  2. I agree it’s a bad precedent, but I suspect it should be a topic with the officers as to why it should not be repeated ever again. I think the higher ups see the value of the good PR, which has probably been far too short in liberal bastions lie NYC. I think the compassion should have come after the arrest instead of in the place of. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime and we all pay higher prices for people like her, putting others closer to the line even when their morals are working well. This supposed kindess is a slap at the fifty who live on hot dogs and ramen from cheaper stores, but don’t look as ‘nice.’

  3. Ever gotten a warning ticket? I did as a kid when that light was transitioning from yellow to red. My wife did as a senior citizen when she speeded up to get by an 18-wheeler more quickly on the interstate. We both broke the law. Both cops showed some compassion. That’s where I am on this one. I wanted to find a reason to say the cops did the right thing. Maybe Gene Autry’s #6, help those in distress. Their judgment on the scene was that the woman needed help, not punishment. I won’t second guess them, but I agree it’s an appropriate topic for training within the department.

  4. These one off events may gin up some positive press but such PR is temporal. If they want to create a program to help the poor use the Marine Corp model of Toys for Tots. Such a program would provide help to non thieves needing help.

    I wonder if a program named Food for Freeloaders would gain traction?

    Theoretically, some other shoplifter could allege a 14th amendment violation if charged when the government agents intervened to help another more sympathetic thief escape punishment.

    From the photo the woman does not appear emaciated from hunger.

    • She’s obese, by any medical definition of the term. Aren’t lefties and Europeans constantly harping on Americans’ obesity problem? Didn’t Michael Bloomberg out law Big Gulps? Aren’t people in New York and AOC’s district supposed to be raising Carribbean fruits and vegetables in their community gardens because things like bread are Colonial impositions upon the noble savages? Shouldn’t the police have bought her some locally sources yucca? Talk about a nanny state. Sheesh.

  5. The senior bus used to come to the supermarket I worked part time in as a college student, about once a week. One week I had several of the elderly come through my register, but one caught my attention. An older gent came through and paid for his groceries….with the corners of a box clearly visible through the shirt he was wearing. I looked at the manager, he looked, saw and shook his head. I didn’t say anything to the old fellow. He left with his box of cereal ‘undiscovered’. The manager told me to ignore anything I saw with the elderly on the senior bus, but he was gung-ho at grabbing just about every other type of shoplifter, sometimes personally. I don’t think the police should be making such decisions, though. They should be enforcing the law impartially. If management decides not to press charges, that’s their decision, but these officers made that decision themselves and that’s not right, in my opinion.

  6. I am not an ethicist so I will not try to comment on whether the actions were ethical. I will however state that purchasing food was kind and generous. The purchase of here food though was short-sighted did not solve the true issue of providing food in the future. It is my belief that the officers should have spoken to the grocery store manager to not pursue charges and then brought this woman to a local food pantry where food would be provided for free and she would now know where to go in the future, thereby preventing future theft.

      • I scanned a half a dozen reports, and I didn’t see anything one way or the other about Whole Foods pressing charges. My best guess is that, if they were going to, that was short-circuited bo the officers stepping in. And, we don’t know if they told her how to access a food pantry or other services. I hope they did. I don’t see this at all as a creeping ethics blindness, just a human reaction where one ethics principle took precedence over others. But, if it is an ethics blindness, it has crept quite a way. Here’s Lt Sojo:
        “You know, I’ve been doing this for 22 years. This is not the first time I’ve paid for food. This is not the first time they’ve paid for someone’s food,” he said referring to the two other cops.”We don’t go out and do it all the time, but, you know, when you look at someone’s face and you notice that they need you, and they’re actually hungry. It’s pretty difficult as a human being to walk away from something like that. We weren’t raised like that. So, it’s the right thing to do.”

        • ” when you look at someone’s face”??? Now THERE’S A fair and objective standard! Cope sre not the same as everyone else. Their #1 duty is to enforce the law, not to decide who’s “Face” warrants special treatment. If a prosecutor doesn’t want to prosecute, that’s his or her decision, not a cops. Face? It is absolutely not “the right thing to do.”

          • Ahh, I dunno, Jack. I think cops need to be able to exercise some discretion when it comes to arresting someone.
            Traffic cops can and do issue verbal warnings, write warning tickets, issue tickets that will result in a fine or court situation, and make arrests and haul ’em in, all based on the same kind of traffic violation. Patrol cops (and Special Operations cops who happen on a scene) must have the same kind of discretion.
            There’s some key stuff we don’t know here. Did Whole Foods want an arrest? Did they know the woman? Did they get a good ID? Did she have a clean record? Did the decision to pay come after a decision not to arrest? Maybe the cops had the answers, maybe not.
            But, if they are not able to exercise some discretion, if it was zero tolerance all the time, the justice system would be thoroughly clogged and cops would be reviled so widely that community policing would be impossible.
            I think when Sojo mentions looking at her face, he’s talking about the decision to pay, not the decision about arresting or not. I think that decision already was made.
            And, for what it’s worth, the NYPD Patrol Guide specifies the “conditions under which a uniformed member of the service may [not must] make an arrest”.

  7. In addition to the “Awww factor,” there is also the phenomenon of younger police officers trying to be the latest YouTube star, recording themselves in all sorts of activities (dancing around in uniform, lip-synching while driving a police vehicle) that old-school cops like me would label as unprofessional at best. I see stuff like this all the time on Facebook. The comments about wanting to generate positive PR are also relevant. Such “good deeds” are often performed by private citizens without though as to the bigger consequences. Police should know -and do- better.

  8. Wanna bet this lady has been manipulating police officers and business owners not to press charges using her “woe be unto me” emotional bull shit for quite some time. I’ve seen this kind of manipulative shit many times in retail stores over the years.

    In my humble opinion; there is only one reason that this lady shouldn’t have been arrested and that’s if the business chose not to press charges.

    This behavior by police officers is enabling the behavior.

    • Perfect, Wim. You’re right! Campus security. That’s what the entire nation needs its police forces to become. Instead of jails we can have safe spaces. Wonderful. We’ll have administrators of every stripe running everything and everything will be free!

  9. I doubt the officers thought about the ethical ramifications. It was a genuine display of compassion in the moment. If the store offered not to press charges, that is on them. If the police sought to circumvent the law by paying for it, that, in my opinion, is unethical. They say the road to hell is pathed in good intentions. Perhaps this is an example of that.

  10. I wonder if the store issued a trespass notice to the woman? That gives zero wiggle room for the officers if she comes back. Unless they’re willing to pay fines and serve her jail time.

  11. I’m more intrigued by the fact that a shoplifting call at a Whole Foods warrants the attention of at least three police officers. I’m not sure what the NYPD’s “Strategic Response Group” is supposed to be doing, but they’re clearly not a very busy organization.

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