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False arrest, ego and the perils of temptation

July 26, 2016

Published By: Tony O' Brien

Let’s start this article off with a scenario.

It has been a quiet morning in the store when you spot him. He’s watching the camera, fidgeting nervously as he walks into one of your high risk merchandise areas and opens his jacket. Everything about his behaviour is telling you he’s going to steal.

Adrenaline starts going now as he selects his item and conceals it inside his jacket and closes it up. Your adrenaline is really starting to run now as he takes the scenic route around the store and your glaring at the CCTV screen waiting for him to leave the store. You get on your radio and position your support near the door. He walks behind a rail of clothing and you lose him for a split second but he appears out the other side looking just as guilty as before. He moves towards the door and exits the store.

Adrenaline surges now as you leave the security office. You arrive outside with your support and make the arrest. As you stand in front of the suspect you immediately notice the jacket. Its open now and there’s clearly nothing concealed there. Your mind shoots back to that split second when he walked behind the rail and the dreadful thought enters your head; “FALSE ARREST”.

Panic begins to set in as he stands there smiling at you. What should you do? Who should you call? Your job is now potentially on the line but how has it come to this?

In this article I would like to look at this nightmare situation and the topic of false arrest in a little detail. It’s probably going to turn into a 2-part article. In the first part we will talk about what causes false arrests and how we can prevent to them. In the next article we can discuss what to do in the aftermath of a false arrest and the legal repercussions.

The occurrence of false arrests is one that is wildly over exaggerated in retail security/loss prevention circles. They do happen but taken in the context of the 1000’s of successful arrests which take place all over the country each year they make up a tiny amount.

Nevertheless, when they do occur they can have an extremely high impact in financial, professional and personal terms. So what causes or contributes to cases of false arrest by security operatives. These guys are for the most part professional and experienced so how does it happen? Some are keen to blame the person involved and say that they set the security operative up to make a false arrest. In some cases, this does happen and people do attempt to set up a civil court case for compensation. Even in these cases though it is still the responsibility of the security operative or security team who make the arrest. The other person may have tried to set them up but they chose to make the arrest and must bear the responsibility. For me it generally 1 of 3 issues or a combination of all 3 involved in most false arrests.

These 3 things are:

  • Poor training/policies
  • Ego
  • Temptation

Poor Training/Policies

I’ll talk about the easiest and most obvious one first. Poorly thought out policies and training can lead directly to false arrest. It sounds so obvious but it is still an ongoing issue. Policies and training need to be fit for purpose and designed by people who know what they are talking about.

On plenty of occasions I have been told by a manager or supervisor that they have seen somebody steal something and instructed me to stop them. Even worse I’ve have seen and heard of retailers who give their security teams and contract security companies arrest targets to meet and threaten disciplinary action or loss of a contract if they aren’t met. Both of these scenarios are clear signs of poorly thought out and communicated policies and procedures but they do still happen.

Training is the second area where issues frequently arise. I have sat through a number of arrest procedure training sessions delivered by a well-meaning HR or training manager who have the best intentions in the world but no practical experience of dealing with the types of scenarios they are training you in. The training turns into a PowerPoint presentation of information of which only about 10% will be retained. Policies, procedures and training should be designed and delivered with input from security professionals. Security professionals who can keep up to date with changes in best practice, industry standards and case law. The training should be realistic and scenario based and preferably take place within the persons own workplace.  It should also be refreshed regularly to compensate for bad habits that build over time.


When we see hundreds of customers every single day we establish in our minds basic baseline behaviours for our customers. We know what they look like as they shop, how they walk, stand and even how they look at other people. Over time we begin to notice behaviours that vary from the baseline and these behaviours alert you to the presence of risk. This is natural human cognitive function. We notice things that are out of the ordinary. One of the problems that all human beings have is a tendency to re-enforce these beliefs in our head and this can lead to mistakes. Once we see some indicators of potential theft our brain begins to look at the persons every action and our thought process attempts to convince us that we are right.   We basically persuade ourselves that this person’s actions are supporting our original assessment. When he brushes his hand through his hair he’s definitely concealing his face from the camera because that what guilty people do. So when the person walks behind the rail of clothing and emerges the other side all of our emotional thoughts (spurred by adrenaline) are convincing us that he is still in possession of the item. Our rational brain is giving us this niggling little message in the back of our mind saying “don’t do it”. But our emotional brain is fuelled by adrenaline and overloads us with messages to re-enforce our assessment.

“He was only out of sight for a second, not long enough to drop the goods”

“His body language is still the same so he must still have it”.

“They never drop the stuff”

All of these are commonly reported thought processes after false arrests. We convince ourselves its worth taking the chance and temptation over rides rational thinking. We give in to temptation and take the risk. We all know the likely outcome sooner or later.


We all have an ego. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when its driving performance and results. It is a bad thing when it starts leading to errors. We hate to lose and this is absolutely natural. The person walking out the door with the items is seen as a loss. We personalise the issue. We consider the goods our own and their loss is as if the person had walked up to you and stolen your wallet.  The ego and its hatred of losing charges the emotional brain and thinking emotionally during arrests leads to errors. In reality it’s not personal, it’s not a loss and it’s not a reflection on you. I wrote a Facebook post recently called ‘Retail security; you get to choose how you win’ about your options when dealing with potential shoplifters and how you get to choose how you act. Don’t let ego get in the way of this.



Preventing false arrest

How do we prevent false arrest or at least reduce the risk to a minimal level? I generally look at 3 areas which can be worked upon to reduce the risk significantly.

  • Culture
  • Mindset
  • Training


This part is for store managers, contract managers and security managers. A culture of overall loss reduction and safety should be promoted and designed into all security processes. Arrests are only a small part of this. A security operative should never feel under pressure to make an arrest or feel worried about his or her employment if they don’t make the arrest. A strong loss prevention culture accepts that business losses do happen and gives employees a whole range of options for preventing loss. A culture that says its ok to let the person leave if you aren’t completely sure or if you don’t feel safe to proceed. A culture such as this builds trust and accountability in the security team. They are accountable for their actions because they had a range of options to choose from under no pressure from management over which one they choose. It frees up professional security operatives to make professional decisions.


Developing a risk averse mindset amongst the security team is key. Mindset comes from the culture and is developed through training so all 3 elements of prevention are linked in one way. When a theft is occurring a security operative who is risk averse must remember 3 things:

  1. It’s not personal- Both sides are attempting to through a process. It’s a game of cat and mouse and whose system works best in this individual situation. If yours works better, you get to make the arrest. If the shoplifter’s system works better, he gets away until the next day.
  2. It’s not your property – It is the property of your employer or client who pays you to keep losses at an acceptable level. You can never prevent all loss and trying to do so will lead to mistakes. All you can do is your best and keep the levels of loss acceptable.
  3. Cost/benefit – Consider the potential costs of making a false arrest against the benefit of making the arrest. The benefits may include you feeling good about yourself for a while or getting one over on the bad guys. The costs on the other hand are huge. Consider the €20,000 to €40,000 compensation award, your name in the newspaper, the internal investigation, potential disciplinary action, your reputation within the industry. I think we can all agree the cost of taking a risk far outweighs the short term emotional benefits.


We already spoke about training and its importance. Proper training can help overcome all of the contributing factors to false arrests. Arrest procedure training should be structured and process driven. Security operatives should be trained like engineers when it comes to arrest procedure. The arrest procedure is a series of key stages in sequence and decisions need to be made quite quickly and under pressure and the training should reflect this. Training should build a mental decision tree in the security operatives mind. Arrest procedure models such as ASCEND, SCONE, ASCONE provide a good base for this. The training should take whichever is your preferred model and develop it into an overall arrest procedure beginning at subject identification stage, preparation, arrest and post arrest stages and outline the security operative’s decisions and options at each stage. With training and practice this decision making process becomes embedded in the security team. Pressure testing the training in a controlled environment is also important. This type of realistic scenario based training forces the security operative to apply rational thinking under stress and adrenaline.

Using these decision tree type situations and scenario based training helps to control ego and temptation. As the security operative observes the subject in the store they are mentally going through the decision tree. If the answer to the question posed by the decision tree is no, then the arrest does not proceed. There are no maybes or buts involved. The outcome is a clear NO. The ego may not like this but the ego can be trained to be comfortable within this type of system because if you mess up then the accountability is all on you and the system cannot break. The only thing that can go wrong is YOU.


The goal of this article was to highlight the constant risk of false arrest. If it makes you look at your current systems and procedures or your training that’s great. It doesn’t mean you have to change anything just take a look at your systems critically and consider how they fit with what you and your colleagues face on a daily basis. Does the system and the training encourage rational thought or is there anything in there that is feeding ego or generating temptation? Even if this article only plants a seed of doubt in a single security operatives head the next time they consider taking a chance on an arrest then it will have been a success. 

False arrest is a horrible situation to find yourself in and I hope nobody reading this ever has to deal with it. So please don’t put yourself in situations where it can happen and increase the already high risk.




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