“Let me go!” the woman screeched, writhing like a fish on a hook. Two young women in shop uniforms, faces grim but determined, had her pinned mere steps from the automatic doors, opening out to freedom.
Another employee stood nearby, murmuring into their mobile phone, hand cupped over it to tune out the woman’s shrieks and curses. Their gaze roved over her outfit, taking it all in – crop-top riding up above her belly button, glitter-spangled shorts, cheap thongs which displayed her pink toenails – before they turned away, rattling off a physical description to the officer on the line.
The scene reminded me of something from a David Attenborough doco. In this case, the woman was the wild animal – cornered, desperate, lashing out with teeth and nails. And for some reason, it made me sad.
Shoplifting is an epidemic that can’t be remedied through conventional means. You can install as many new fancy CCTV cameras and beeping sensors and employ as many grizzly security guards as you like, but they won’t change a thing.
There are always going to be a couple of grinning teenagers with their hands plunged into the bulging pockets of their hoodies as they dart out of the two dollar shop. Or the mum who shoves her kids towards shop staff to distract them while she sneaks some goodies into her trolley.
It’s not right, obviously. Because the woman at the checkout has bills to spring for, too. Every cent that lines a crook’s pockets is a minus in someone else’s spreadsheet.
But for all of that, I remember being embarrassed for the woman in the crop-top. Shoppers openly ogled. Check-out attendants leaned out of their stalls to get a better look. Mums shepherded their kids away, pulling them a little closer, clutching their hands a little tighter.
My ears pricked up as I caught whispers from nearby rubberneckers. “Bet she stole something,” someone said with relish. That much seemed obvious to me. I felt like stepping forward, ordering them to move along – nothing to see here – but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
What I did do was get out of there as quickly as I could. Something about the whole thing made me feel… dirty, like I’d seen something I wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t want to be a part of it. Truthfully, I wished I could scrub it from my memory altogether.
But that wasn’t an option. Instead, my mind whirled, searching for an explanation, a motive.
Maybe she was a junkie, arms peppered with needle tracks, high out of her mind. That was an easy excuse, the go-to write-off for something like this.
Or maybe she was cash-strapped and needed supplies for her kids’ school lunches.
I didn’t know. And I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I most likely never will. Whatever the case, it’s clear our current approach isn’t working – probably because the issue is far broader-reaching than we give it credit for.
As we passed sirens on the way home, I wondered what was going on in her life to lead her to the place where she felt she had to steal.
I imagine it’s the things that you don’t see happening on CCTV that are the most revealing of all.