THE BLOG
07/20/2014 10:33 am ET Updated Sep 19, 2014

Wal-Mart's Vigilante Justice Against Suspected Shoplifters

By Al Norman

After spending the last six months in jail, Kenneth C. Moureau will enter an El Cajon, California Superior Courtroom on July 22nd. to fight charges that he stole $86.37 from a Wal-Mart store in Santee, California. He faces up to 9 years in jail on assault with a dangerous weapon charges.

Moureau might be a free man today if he had not been wrestled to the ground by as many as 4 Wal-Mart workers.

According to a San Diego County Sheriff's arrest report dated January 12, 2014, Moureau, 50, says he was shopping at Wal-Mart with his wife, Lori Ruch. While she was paying for their items with cash, Ruch had to wait while the cashier got her a pack of cigarettes. Moureau took his cart and started to head to their car. Moureau says the Wal-Mart cashier looked at him and told him to "go ahead."

What happened next in the parking lot went down in a matter of minutes. The arrest report notes that Moureau stated "an unknown young male grabbed him by the arm. Moureau thought he was being robbed and did not know who the individual was. Shortly after the first individual grabbed Moureau by the wrist, another unknown male walked up and grabbed Moureau by the leg. Moureau feared for his safety and pulled his knife from this front right pocket."

The "first individual" to lay hands on Moureau was Devone Riley, a 23 year old "asset protection" employee at Wal-Mart. Riley admitted in a court statement that he was not wearing any type of Wal-Mart identification, because he did not want people to know he worked for the retailer.

In his arraignment transcript, Riley claimed that he grabbed Moureau because the latter was about to back into a baby stroller:

Riley:
I grabbed his jacket and I pulled him away from the baby...And then he started to struggle with me and fight with me, and then I turned him around and I went to push him against the wall, and as I did, he pulled out a knife...He started to struggle with me because I was holding onto his jacket...so I turned him around and I went to like push him against the wall, so he would stop, which I'm allowed to do.

Later in the transcript, Moureau's Public Defendant asked Riley about Wal-Mart's Shoplifters Detention Policy:

Q: Prior to switching from what you were doing [at Wal-Mart] to asset protection, did you do any training with Wal-Mart...as in policies and procedures of asset protection?
Riley: Yes.
Q: Is it a course that you take or is it a book that they provide you?
Riley: They provide you with a binder, it's filled with papers, and then you also have to train with an approved associate to train you.
Q: Does Wal-Mart have any type of policy preventing asset protection specialists from touching the---any suspects of theft?
Riley: Not particularly. We're allowed to physically restrain people, to physically redirect people.

Actually, that's not even close to what Wal-Mart policy says. In its Investigation and Detention of Shoplifters Policy (AP-09) Asset Protection employees are instructed to "PUT PEOPLE FIRST. Protecting the physical well-being of Suspects, customers, and Wal-Mart associates is your first priority. Only non-aggressive methods may be used when investigating Suspects."

AP-09 also says that "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." Wal-Mart workers are allowed to defend themselves "to the extent necessary to disengage the Suspect and withdraw from the situation."

Wal-Mart AP-09 is very clear that "if a suspect is believed to possess a weapon, the Suspect must not be detained. If during detention, it becomes apparent that a Suspect has a weapon or brandishes or threatens use of a weapon, all associates must disengage from the situation, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement."

If Wal-Mart staff had adhered to this policy and disengaged, Kenneth Moureau probably would not have spent the last 6 months in jail on weapons charges.

Wal-Mart's war on alleged shoplifters never seems to end. I have been writing about the retailer's mishandling of "loss prevention" incidents for the past 13 years.

In January, 2011 in Layton, Utah, Wal-Mart fired four employees who wrestled a gun from a suspected shoplifter. The retailer defended the firings in a statement, which read in part: "We appreciate the intentions demonstrated by our associates in this situation, but the actions taken put their safety -- and potentially the safety of our customers and other associates -- in jeopardy."

Last year I blogged in this space that " it was time for Wal-Mart to stop killing shoplifters." This confrontation in Santee left suspect Moureau with an arm broken in 14 places, and the prospect of years in jail---all over a car jack stand, a skillet, some storage bags and a steam iron.

"My husband is incarcerated in the central unit at San Diego county jail in the medical unit recovering from his third surgery on his arm and hand," Lori Ruch told me. "His surgeries were required after he was attacked by and subdued by 4 grown men---all of whom were each larger than his 5'7" 120lb frame." Ruch also notes there was no baby stroller in the Wal-Mart surveillance tape she has seen.

Wal-Mart employees need better training---but they also need to realize they do not work for a law enforcement agency. If Wal-Mart can't cover its assets better, more people will be seriously wounded---or die--face down in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

As one Wal-Mart spokesman admitted after the Layton firings, "We just can't have associates trying to take matters into their own hands." But it has happened again in Santee. Wal-Mart's loss prevention policy today at the store level is just vigilante justice.

Given Wal-Mart's corporate culture, is it really possible for this company to PUT PEOPLE FIRST? Or will they continue to believe they have the right to "push people" against the Wal?

Kenneth Moureau will have his day in court this Tuesday. But it is really Wal-Mart that is on trial.

Al Norman founded Sprawl-Busters 21 years ago, and is the author of three books about Wal-Mart. His latest book is Occupy Walmart.