Jayne: Anything to be learned from Great WinCo Kerfuffle?

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor



Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

I hope it was worth it.

A Vancouver girl, identified in court proceedings as a 14-year-old, received 15 minutes of infamy last week. She grappled with “loss prevention officers” outside a local WinCo, sustaining a scraped elbow and a scraped knee. She saw the inner workings of the juvenile justice system. She starred in a video that was posted on Facebook and earned the distinction of going viral, which all too often these days is mistaken as the official barometer of relevance.

The video, taken by a bystander, was posted by dozens of media outlets. By Wednesday, it had been viewed more than 10 million times, and The Columbian’s post alone had generated hundreds upon hundreds of comments.

And throughout this firestorm, the amazing part is what served as kindling: The girl had stolen some candy. That’s it — she had shoplifted some candy.

I hope it was worth it.

Usually, the issue of a teenager lifting some candy from a store could be easily ignored. But the attention generated by this case brings up questions about crime and punishment, about our interconnected world, and even about excessive force.

You see, many people, judging by voices that can be heard on the video and by online comments, believe that WinCo security officers were too rough on the perpetrator. She refused to cooperate, repeatedly dropping to the ground, and they physically tried to restrain her — even employing a full nelson hold. While critics are right in suggesting that the situation could have been handled more effectively, they typically fail to offer reasonable alternatives. Let her go? Leave her to lie in the parking lot until police arrive? Say “pretty please with sugar on top”?

The point here is not to suggest that the employees handled it well — they didn’t, judging by the video. The point is that the girl is the criminal is this case, and that should not be overshadowed by the actions of WinCo security. The girl wasn’t the victim; the rest of us were.

According to a 2014 report from Checkpoint Systems, U.S. retailers lose more than $15 billion a year to shoplifting. That is less than the amount of loss from theft by dishonest employees — a worthy discussion for another time — but it’s still a lot. And those costs get passed along to law-abiding consumers.

Not that there’s anything new about this. According to a 2011 story in The Washington Post, shoplifting is as old as retail, or at least as old as Shakespeare. “In 1591,” wrote Rachel Shteir, “the Bard’s contemporary, playwright Robert Greene, wrote a pamphlet offering advice for shoplifters.” Which has nothing to do with The Great WinCo Kerfuffle, but it is kind of interesting.

We are being watched

Despite all this, the most fascinating thing about the issue is the notion that we are always being watched. That the girl’s crime — which she admitted to on the video — was caught on security cameras. That the parking lot wrestling match was recorded by bystanders. That millions of voyeurs have watched the incident — although the recording started after the girl allegedly assaulted security personnel — in their living rooms or at their local coffee shop.

The benefits and the drawbacks of this are endlessly complex. When a suspect is shot by a police officer, we are better for having video that can illuminate the facts of the incident. But when 4.4 million people watch a video of a waffle falling over, well, the world is a little dumber for it.

So there is value in having video of a teenager grappling with loss prevention officers. There is power in knowledge of the incident, in being able to weigh for ourselves whether security was too rough and to ask what they could have done differently.

Meanwhile, the girl on Wednesday had her arraignment postponed until July 24. That might or might not outlive her infamy, but it will provide plenty of time for her to ponder an important question: Was stealing some candy worth it?