Profiling in the Retail Arena

"Profiling" has become a dirty word in this country. It carries connotations of racial persecution and the failure to accord civil rights to certain segments of the population. Of course, it's always bad and always wrong. Right?

Not so fast. Many people don't want to address this sensitive issue for fear of appearing racist, sexist or other-ist. But like any other issue, it can't be examined in the dark. Light must be shed on profiling in order to consider its merits, or lack thereof.

Denotation vs. Connotation

First, it is necessary to establish what profiling actually is. Webster's defines a profile as "a biographical sketch." The term profiling, then, as used in security and law enforcement, means creating a biographical sketch of criminals to determine who commits what kinds of crimes. So far, there is nothing negative about profiling.

But let's consider the unspoken subtext: the "denotation" vs. the "connotation" of the word. "Denotation" means the actual, dictionary definition of a word or phrase, while "connotation" represents its emotional meaning. When it comes to profiling, the common public reaction is to its connotation rather than its denotation. The fear is that once the authorities have developed a profile, anyone and everyone that fits a part of that profile will be treated as a criminal, with the attendant humiliations and deprivation of rights. The outcry reflects an apprehension of how the information will be used, rather than a protest against the collection of information itself.

Hispanic-Organized Theft Rings

Lately, the loss prevention community has recognized that many organized retail theft rings are structured along ethnic lines. Frequently, a group of four Hispanics, usually unknown to each other, target a store. Each person has a specific role to play, whether it be as the lookout, the person who distracts store personnel or the actual thief. Once the goods have been stolen, they are funneled to a ring of Middle Eastern fences for resale. This network then often uses the profits from shoplifting to support terrorist activities.

This information about organized theft rings has been collected through observation of the criminals in action and by tracing the paths by which the goods and the money travel. This type of information is completely neutral?it is simply a description, or a profile, of the people committing a certain type of crime.

Yet many people -- notably Latinos and those of Middle Eastern extraction -- have been raising a ruckus over this information lately. They seem to believe that this set of facts indicates that all Hispanics and all Middle Easterners are criminals. They are reacting emotionally, rather than rationally.

Using Profiling Information in the Store

The problem with an emotional reaction is that it leaves little room for reason to creep in. The doom mongers who pounce on this type of profiling information generally open their mouths before engaging their brains. They would have everyone believing that the entire retail community is out to get them.

What they're not entertaining is the facts. Is it a fact that many theft rings are made up of Hispanic members? Yes. Do the facts indicate that all Hispanics are thieves? No. Just as all Middle Easterners are not terrorists, nor are all blacks drug dealers, nor are all whites racists. Given the known information about organized theft rings, would it be prudent to take the facts into consideration when trying to prevent shoplifting? Of course. That means that if a group of four Latinos enters the store, and they are not talking, laughing or holding hands?in fact, they seem like strangers to each other?they are worth keeping an eye on because they fit the profile of an organized theft ring. That does not mean, however, that all Latinos in the store are potential shoplifting suspects.

Profile of a Security Manager

Many of the race-related problems that occur in this country exist because of a lack of understanding of minorities on the part of those in authority. Many times, that lack of understanding exists because the security director is not a minority. The profile of a typical security manager is an older white male, often a retired police officer.

This older white man has probably spent a career in law enforcement arresting members of minority groups for various crimes. (The issue of why minorities are overrepresented in the criminal population is a separate discussion, but one look into any prison or jail tells the story.) So the security manager already has a mindset that minorities must be given a hard look when they enter the store, as they're likely to be involved in criminal activities.

This profile is changing, however. Little by little, ethnic minorities and females are attaining supervisory and executive positions in the security field.

Diversity in Security

"Diversity" is another word that is often discussed positively in the daylight hours but sneered at when the lights go down. Many managers, particularly in the security field, secretly think that "diversity" means hiring unqualified minorities so that the company can meet an unwritten quota. Shame on any company that will hire a minority without the proper qualifications simply because of that person's ethnic background. That kind of hiring practice is not beneficial to anyone. The company gets the short end of the stick because it has failed to hire someone who is qualified to do the job, and the employee is put in a position where he or she is bound to fail because of a lack of qualifications to perform the job properly.

But shame, too, on a company that overlooks minority candidates because of negative preconceived notions about the minority group to which they belong.

Profiling job candidates as a whole, rather than as individuals, is as costly to a business as profiling all members of an ethnic group as shoplifters, or as failing to pay attention to established profiles of criminals.

Profiling in itself is not a bad thing. It's how the information is used that counts.

About the Author: Liz Martinez is a security expert and the author of The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Fraud and Violence (2004, Looseleaf Law Publications). She has a B.A. in criminal justice from John Jay College, is a member of ASIS International, and is an instructor at Interboro Institute in New York City, a two-year college that offers a Security Management degree program. Ms. Martinez can be reached through her Web site at