In response to a polarizing Nov. 10 incident at Gibson’s Bakery, Oberlin police chief Juan Torres met Tuesday with merchants to discuss how to reduce shoplifting.
Torres said the case, which is pending in Oberlin Municipal Court, illustrates the dangers of merchants trying to detain or apprehend shoplifting suspects.
Police said bakery employee Allyn Gibson was assaulted by suspect Jonathan Aladin, who allegedly tried to steal bottles of wine. Aladin, an Oberlin College student, was charged with robbery and fellow students Endia Lawrence and student Cecilia Whettstone, accused of punching and kicking Gibson, were charged with assault.
The incident led to hundreds of students protesting outside Gibson’s accusing the store of racially profiling black people such as Aladin, and counter-protests in support of Gibson’s.
Despite the profiling allegations, police statistics show most of the people charged with shoplifting and robbery at Gibson’s in the last five years have been white.
Between January 2011 and Nov. 14, 58 people were charged with shoplifting there. Of the 40 adult suspects, 32 were white, six were black, and two were Asian. Of the juvenile suspects, 14 were black and four were white.
During the same period, there were four robberies at Gibson’s with four suspects arrested. Three were white and one was black.
Torres, who spoke to members of the Oberlin Business Partnership, a downtown merchants association, recommended merchants call police when they suspect someone is shoplifting
“Never, ever confront a shoplifter because you can get hurt or you can end up with a week of protests,” he said.
Torres said if police have probable cause, such as a merchant missing merchandise from the store after the suspect left, police can detain the suspect. But even if a merchant suspects someone is about to shoplift, he recommended calling police. While officers can’t detain the suspect, their presence can be a deterrent.
Merchants can have shoplifters banned from their stores temporarily or permanently if the suspects can be identified. They could be charged with trespassing if they violate the ban.
Krista Long, owner of Ben Franklin & MindFair Books, said employees who suspect someone is about to shoplift are instructed to engage them in a non-confrontational way, such as asking if they need help finding something. If workers see someone walking out with merchandise, they may ask the person if they forgot to pay for an item. “It is a constant thing, unfortunately,” she said.
Merchants said people shoplift for various reasons. Some do it habitually, some impulsively, and others are kleptomaniacs. They said students who shoplift from downtown businesses may not realize they have a small margin profit margin that is reduced by shoplifting.
“They don’t know the first thing about what it costs to run a business and how much it costs to pay for the merchandise,” said Silvija Aschaffenburg-Koschnick of Bead Paradise.
Aschaffenburg-Koschnick said she supports equality for gay, lesbian and transgender people but worries that if she confronts one transgender woman who she suspects of shoplifting, it will lead to her store being protested.
“These students who are activist students, they have good intentions,” she said. “They just don’t know what is going on.”
Janet Haar, Oberlin Business Partnership executive director, said before the Gibson’s incident some Oberlin College students were planning a publicity effort to encourage students to buy locally. YouTube video profiles of store owners and videos illustrating where money spent locally goes to were planned.
Haar said the protests have put the effort on hold but she hopes it will be revived.
Tita Reed, the college’s assistant to the president for communications and governmental affairs, didn’t return calls but Haar said talks between her group and college officials about reviving the effort are planned next month.
Dominic Michal, the owner of Buckeye and the Frog, an Elm Street bed and breakfast, and a member of the partnership’s board of trustees, said Oberlin public school officials should be part of the conversation. Michal said the college shouldn’t be singled out because college students aren’t the only people who shoplift.
“We’ve got to bring all parts of the community together,” he said. “Otherwise, we will continue pointing our fingers at some people and that’s not what we want to do to solve the problem.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @Goodenow News on Twitter