Unclassified Info: Justice and good judgment

Last week, I mentioned that a funny thing happened on the way to writing my column. What had begun as a chronicle of my adventures with veganism quickly took a strange turn when I was interrupted by the sight of a woman who was nabbed by Whole Foods employees for shoplifting.

Or perhaps the items merely fell into her purse, since no formal accusation was made.

Four employees confronted this shopper outside the store as she was attempting to leave. Inside the woman's purse were various items that by all appearances had not been paid for.

From my ringside seat, I watched intently as the woman and employees discussed the matter. Because I was inside and looking through a window, I could not hear what was transpiring. But I can say it all looked to be very polite and professional, given the serious circumstance.

I surmised that it would only be a matter of minutes before Glendale police arrived on scene to haul the woman off to jail. But that isn't even close to what happened. Instead, the employees took the pilfered items back and sent the old woman on her way.

As she strolled off into the morning sun, I felt very conflicted about her stay of execution.

Should she have been released with nothing more than a warning, I wondered? Did they let he go because of her demographic characteristics? Would they have let me go as quickly?

If they had caught me stealing an expensive bottle of wine, would they have simply requested the property back and let me go home with my criminal record unblemished? My mind expanded upon the possibilities.

What about a teenager? Would they receive the same lenient treatment?

The whole notion of partiality began to weigh heavily in my mind. Should the store be allowed to decide who gets to go to jail and who gets to walk away? Even though it is their property, somehow it seemed wrong. Why should this older woman get off with nothing more than a few minutes of public embarrassment while someone else could conceivably end up facing a much stiffer consequence?

I sat with those questions and then reconsidered the possibility of what would actually be gained by prosecuting this old woman. The answer to that was “nothing,” of course. The police would have to go through their motions. The store employees would have to go through a bunch of procedures. The old woman would be further humiliated.

And to what end? Most likely it would only satisfy a desire that all individuals caught shoplifting are treated the same.

But that was only my opinion. I still needed to find out from the Whole Foods employees what prompted them to let the old woman go.

First I asked the store manager if they would have released me if I were caught stealing something from their store. She responded by saying they might.

“Whole Foods' main focus is on getting our property back,” she said. “After that, we try to use good judgment and do the right thing on a case-by-case basis.”

Now that was unusually refreshing. A company using good judgment in a particular situation to determine the next best step in the process. I went back in the store to let that one roll around on my palate for a few minutes — rational behavior is not something I am used to swallowing.

Maybe that was why it was initially hard for me to grasp what I was seeing when the woman was allowed to walk away — a scene of measured restraint.

After a bit of reflection, I think the store ultimately did the right thing. As for me, I felt a little guilty for entertaining the notion of prosecuting an old woman. I mean, it's not like she was texting while driving, right?

This is the second piece in a two-part series. Read part one here

GARY HUERTA is a Glendale resident and author. He is currently working on his second novel and the second half of his life. Gary may be reached at gh@garyhuerta.com.

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