Many business owners in Belfast are growing concerned about how to identify and then confront a potential shoplifter without escalating the situation.

Several business owners said they have been victims of shoplifters and the biggest problem is finding a way to confront the person and knowing what action can or cannot be taken. Belfast Police Chief Michael McFadden said confronting shoplifters is always a complex issue and said different businesses implement different policies to handle problem.

“When I was working as a detective I remember Ames used to budget $150,000 a year for shoplifting because that’s how much merchandise they figured they would lose,” McFadden said. “If they came in under that budget then the manager would get a bonus.”

Now, however, shoplifters are working together and using different methods to illegally obtain items, McFadden said. Two of the more popular shoplifting methods involved taking items from a store such as, Wal-Mart, and then returning the item at a Wal-Mart in a different town for cash or store credit, McFadden said.

“Now we’re also seeing multiple people enter a store and store and one person will immediately go up to the clerk and start talking with the person while the other individual starts to load up their pockets with items,” he said.

While McFadden declined to specifically tell business owners how to handle a shoplifting incident, he said many businesses craft their own policies for how employees should approach the situation.

“I know Olympia Sports has a policy against confronting shoplifters because they had an incident where an employee chased a shoplifter out into a parking lot and was then shot and killed,” he said.

However, McFadden said other options include picking up the phone and calling police before confronting a shoplifter or installing security cameras. He said Belfast Variety had problems with people driving off without paying for gas and also an employee who was stealing money.

“They were losing between $500 and $600 a day and since installing the cameras they went down to about $10 a day in thefts,” McFadden said.

Out on a Whimsey Owner Deborah Hall said she looked at installing cameras, but found the equipment was too expensive. Belfast City Councilor Michael Hurley said there are surveillance systems available for about $400 and are worth the expense.

“I owned a couple of shops and I remember there were instances where shoplifters would come in and clean us out,” Hurley said. “We were kind of oblivious to it, but if shoplifters know where to go the word spreads and they will continue to target you store.”

For business owners who choose not to pursue video surveillance, McFadden said to watch out for people who enter the business and don’t make eye contact and immediately go into an out-of-the-way corner. When questioned about how to handle people who enter a store with a large bag, McFadden suggested asking the person to put the bag down next to the cash register. He also said store owners have the right to ask a person to leave the building if the person is acting in a manner that makes the owner or employees uncomfortable.

“You reserve the right to tell someone to leave,” McFadden said. “It may not always be good for your business, but that’s up to you.”

Republican Journal reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or