Shane Harms/ Ballard News-Tribune
Entry to Ballard Safeway where Samira Othman worked for 12 years. She was fired last May for laying her hands on an shoplifter after she feared for her safety. According Othman, Safeway operates with a “no chase” policy for shoplifters.

Woman works at Ballard Safeway for 12 years, fired for trying to stop vandal, shoplifter

After 12 years of working for Safeway, Samira Othman, 48, never thought she would be fired for trying to prevent a shoplifter and vandal from taking liberties while on her watch, but that’s just what happened last May.

Othman told the Ballard News-Tribune that she has been a merchandise stocker at the store for years. She moved here from Jerusalem back in 2001 and got a job at a Capital Hill Safeway, but after a year she moved back to Jerusalem to care for her mother. She later returned in 2004 and asked her previous manager for a reference in order to get hired at the Ballard Safeway (1423 NW Market St.). She said she was hired immediately and stocked the shelves for over a decade.

“I’m very hard working, and I worked like a dog for them for years,” said Othman.

But she was known for doing much more than stocking the shelves; she also busted shoplifters. For years Othman said she saved the store thousands of dollars by catching thieves and retrieving store products. She said she was rewarded for her efforts with gift cards from the corporate office.

However, Othman said that that all changed about two years ago when Albertsons merged with Safeway, and their store policy for shoplifting changed from store clerks busting shoplifters to a “no-chase, no touch,” policy, which meant all responsibility and concern for shoplifting was placed on the Loss and Prevention Officer – not stockers, not cashiers.

Othman said that after the policy changed she was repeatedly warned by her manager to be careful not to touch the shoplifters lest be fired. Othman said that because of her cultural upbringing she couldn’t help but prevent thieves from taking from the store she worked for.

“I’m from the Middle East and can’t see something and just let it go. People are punished for stealing where I come from. I get so angry when I see people stealing. … We work hard, and we barely make it as it is and these shoplifters are getting things for free.”

So one night after switching to the night shift, Othman was stocking the shelves when she noticed a woman filling a basket with makeup. She said there was probably $100 of makeup in the basket, and when the customer placed the basket near the exit and started walking around that’s when Othman intervened. She told the woman that baskets could not be placed there and asked if she was going to pay for the items. The woman acted aloof and started walking away. Othman asked her to leave. The woman grew angry and began swiping all the merchandise Othman had just stocked off the shelves. Then she started throwing it around.

“I had already worked so hard, and I didn't have time to clean, I had too much to do, and I was working a double, and so I pushed her. … She started to act like a crazy, and I was scared.”

Othman said she grew fearful for her safety and sprayed the woman with pepper spray. When she did that the woman left the store and screamed. Othman said it was around 3 a.m. and after neighbors heard the screams someone called the police. They arrived and saw the mess and asked to see the security footage. In order to do that a security manager was called to the store. Othman said he was not happy.

“He was the meanest person I’ve ever met.”

Othman was fired on the spot.

“He forgot all about the 12 years of hard work. … Safeway was my home. I spent more time there than I spent with my own family. I saved Safeway company thousands of dollars, and they just fire me, for what? Don’t fire someone for stopping a shoplifter who is not worth a penny. See how fair this company is with employees?”

After she was fired she asked her union (USCW) for help, but they didn’t help her because she put her hands on the shoplifter. She said she was told they would help her find another job, but when she got back from visiting her mother the union rep that told her he’d help was nowhere to be found.

Now Othman continues to work as a cashier at Bartell Drugs in Ballard, which was a second job she had while at Safeway. She says she’s looking for another job so she can afford to visit her mother in Jerusalem.

But her efforts at Safeway gave her a reputation. Othman said that while busting shoplifters there she made many enemies in Ballard that continue to harass her while she is working at Bartell’s. She said she has daily threats from these people, and once a man threatened her life.

“He threatened to bust my head in, and he’s spent most of his life in the jail, so I was scared. Now I have a lot of enemies in Ballard from busting shoplifters. I have shop lifters come to Bartell Drugs — come to the window with the middle finger.”

Othman has since applied for similar jobs but says that companies steer away from her when they find out she put her hands on a shoplifter.

“It’s like discrimination for us if we get fired for getting in the way of a shoplifter.”

So what is Safeway’s shoplifting policy?

“Thank you for your inquiry regarding our company’s security policy.  At Safeway, the safety of all our employees and customers is a top priority.  Safeway does not disclose security strategies, we work very closely with local law enforcement to address any crime-related issues involving our store locations,” wrote Tairsa Cate Worman, media handler for Albertsons/Safeway.

Safeway would not comment specifically on Othman’s case.

Since Safeway would not confirm Othman’s assertions about their “no touch, no chase” security policy, the BNT looked around to find clues, and it turns out that back in 2014 Safeway fired a man in a store in Chico, Calif., who tried to stop a high school student from shoplifting. The man had worked for Safeway for 30 years. Action News Now reported that the man was allegedly fired for violating the companies "no chase policy"

“These types of cases can be difficult. While not everyone may agree with our policies governing the confrontation of suspected shoplifters, they are in place to protect the safety of our employees, customers and even a suspected shoplifter. Employees and suspected shoplifters have been injured and, in some cases, even died in such altercations,” stated Safeway's then Director of Public Affairs in Northern California, Keith Turner, in the 2014 report.

Indeed, and such was a case that happened at the Ballard Safeway on August 14 according to a Seattle Police Department report. A known shoplifter who had recently spit in the face of an employee was back, and he loaded a backpack with what was later calculated to be $128 of goods. According to the report, a store employee confronted the man and told him to pay for the items or leave the store. The suspect became argumentative and made for the door. The employee tried to grab some of the merchandise, but the suspect spit in his face, swung at him, missed, and then said, “I have a gun. I’m going to kill you.” The employee backed off. Then the suspect fled with some of the goods. Police later arrested the man who was named in the report as, “Ross.”

Othman said scenes like that happened to her almost daily. She said it was because the shoplifters knew they could get away with it because of the policy. Incidentally, the merger between Safeway and Albertsons was announced in March 2014, right when Othman said the policy changed.

So why are company’s moving to this type of policy? The answer is about liability. If an employ wrongfully stops a potential shoplifter who happens to not have any goods it can become a civil rights violation, and the company could potentially be sued.

States vary in the what they allow for detention of a shoplifter, but in Washington State the owner or agent of the merchant needs “reasonable grounds” to detain a suspected shoplifter, and they can only detain them for a “reasonable time,” which is defined in RCW 4.24.220 of the Washington State legislature as:

“’easonable grounds’ shall include, but not be limited to, knowledge that a person has concealed possession of unpurchased merchandise of a mercantile establishment, and a ‘reasonable time’ shall mean the time necessary to permit the person detained to make a statement or to refuse to make a statement, and the time necessary to examine employees and records of the mercantile establishment relative to the ownership of the merchandise.”

However, just because it’s allowed in this state doesn't mean companies take advantage if it. Some do, but the ones that don’t Othman believes do so because the risk for an employee making a mistake and causing a civil rights lawsuit is too great, or at least a much greater risk than $100 worth of makeup or groceries. This means, at least from what Othman saw, shoplifters claim to sue the store when confronted by store personnel.

“If they leave the door you can’t chase after them, you can’t do anything. The Loss Prevention Officer is like a dog with no teeth because they can’t reprimand (depending on store policy), they can only ask the person to stop and give the goods back and wait for police,” said Othman

“I hate this policy. In this country and this city what’s wrong is right, and what’s right is wrong.”

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