THE BLOG
06/11/2012 09:31 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

It's Time for Wal-Mart Employees to Stop Killing Shoplifters!

A couple hundred million people shop at Wal-Mart stores every year, so its no big deal that every once in a while someone gets killed there for shoplifting. Shoplifting is not a capital offense -- except sometimes at Wal-Mart. When encounters with the retailer's "Asset Protection" staff goes too far -- death can result.

In August, 2005, 30-year-old Stacy Driver, of Cleveland, Ohio, a master carpenter and the father of a two-year-old son, died from a heart attack while lying face down in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Houston, Texas.

Driver was pinned down on the burning hot pavement by several Wal-Mart workers who accused him of shoplifting a package of diapers, a pair of sunglasses, a BB gun, and a package of BBs. "When we got there," a paramedic said, "the man was facedown (in cardiac arrest) with handcuffs behind his back. That's not indicative of someone given CPR." Four Wal-Mart associates chased Driver, who was shirtless at the time, wrestled him to the ground and struggled with him on the hot pavement for 10 to 30 minutes, witnesses said.

A Houston lawyer who witnessed the event, told the Houston Chronicle that one of the Wal-Mart employees had Driver in a choke hold as other employees pinned his body to the ground. "He was begging, 'Please, I'm burning, let me up,'" Another employee brought a rug for Driver to lie on, but one of those holding Driver said he was fine where he was. "After about five minutes, (Driver) said, 'I'm dying, I can't breathe, call an ambulance,'" the eyewitness lawyer continued. After Driver was handcuffed, the eyewitness said one employee had his knee on the man's neck and others were putting pressure on his back. Stacy Driver eventually stopped moving.

Most likely as a result of the Driver case, Wal-Mart updated its Loss Prevention (now called "Asset Protection") Associate Guide, which now instructs employees to "PUT PEOPLE FIRST. Protecting the physical well-being of suspects, customers and Wal-Mart Associates is your first priority." Then the Guide adds: "If at any point the Suspect or any other involved person becomes violent, disengage from the confrontation, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement. If at any point the Suspect or any other involved person exerts physical resistance, determine whether your next reasonable step is to disengage from the confrontation, or move to an authorized detention method. Associates may only defend themselves or others to the extent necessary to disengage the Suspect and to withdraw from the situation. After disengagement, Associates should contact law enforcement."

Wal-Mart policy is that suspects can only be detained "in a reasonable manner, for a reasonable period of time. Employees are instructed to "utilize good judgment in determining whether detention is authorized and the manner in which to proceed. Remember: protecting the physical well-being of Suspects, customers and Walmart Associates is your first priority."

But Wal-Mart allows its Asset Protection staff to "use reasonable force to physically limit or control the movements of a Suspect." The policy notes: "Only the least amount of force necessary to affect the detention under the circumstances may be utilized." The Guide says: "If restraint is attempted and the Suspect cannot be controlled with a reasonable level of force, disengage from the situation, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement."

Wal-Mart workers are told to "always honor a suspect's request for medical attention," and on the list of "prohibited techniques" employees are warned "never place a Suspect in a prone position unless you are unable to safely disengage from an encounter and need to do so to prevent the Suspect from committing a violent act. A Suspect in a prone position should be constantly monitored and moved to a sitting or standing position as soon as reasonably possible."

Stacy Driver was not only physically assaulted, but died lying prone in Wal-Mart's parking lot. All over some BBs and a pair of sun glasses. Two years later, Wal-Mart paid Driver's family $750,000 in a settlement of the family's wrongful death lawsuit.

In December, 2009, a 38-year-old suspected shoplifter named Marty Bridges was fleeing a Wal-Mart store when security staff working for Wal-Mart grabbed him, and a fight broke out. By the time the Dunwoody, Georgia police arrived on the scene, Bridges was on the ground, and bystanders were trying to give him CPR. The suspect was taken to nearby Northside hospital, where he was officially pronounced dead.

The Dunwoody police told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the unspecified items Bridges was accused of stealing were less than $300 in value, and would have resulted in a misdemeanor charge.

"It was basically a big pile-up," a Dunwoody police spokesman told the newspaper. "They had him pinned on the ground to keep him from running." According to one report, store officials had contacted the police saying that a man had been seen stuffing his shirt with store items. Yet as he lay dying in the parking lot, no items were found on his person.

Last week, another alleged shoplifter died in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Covina, California. Jose Marcos Picazo, 41, of Azusa, California reportedly left the Wal-Mart store without paying for merchandise and was followed out into the parking lot by Wal-Mart Asset Protection employees.

"They went outside to detain him, and basically, the fight was on," the police department said. "He resisted them and they began fighting. They were able to get him down on the ground and that's when the Covina police officers arrived."

The Los Angeles County coroner's office said Picazo "became unresponsive" while under the control of Wal-Mart employees, and was pronounced dead at the local hospital in Covina. An autopsy has been performed to determine the cause of death. The Covina cops told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that by the time they arrived the "suspect appeared to be in medical distress." Picazo was accused of stealing some clothes and body wash.

Wal-Mart Loss Prevention staff must have lost their copy of the company's Loss Prevention Associates Guide. "We just can't have associates trying to take matters into their own hands," a Wal-Mart spokesman has said.

It's time for Wal-Mart to follow its own manual and "disengage and withdraw" from these parking lot confrontations. Stacy Driver, Marty Bridges, and Jose Picazo are all dead because Wal-Mart still hasn't figured out that people's lives are more valuable than their cheap Chinese "assets."

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. He has been helping activists fight big box stores for nearly two decades. His latest book is Occupy Walmart.