By Dr. Steve Albrecht
When it comes to thefts in your library, not everything may be as it first seems. It's certainly possible the patron who put that DVD or book into his or her backpack and walked out the front door with it may have meant to check it out but just forgot. People can be distracted by the complexities and urgencies of life and these things happen. It's also certainly plausible the patron who actually steals a book from the library may really want to read it, just doesn't have the time or inclination to get a library card, and may even return the book when finished. It's useful to give patrons the benefit of the doubt that the vast majority want to do the right thing.
As a crime, stealing is all about intent. Did the person mean to do it or was it an accident due to forgetfulness? Consider a similar scenario: A female patron goes into your women's restroom and uses the facilities. She stops to wash her hands at the sink and takes an expensive watch off her wrist and puts it on the counter as she does so. She leaves the library and drives home. In her driveway, she realizes she no longer has the watch and calls the library in a panic as she races back over there. A staffer checks the restroom - no watch is on the sink counter. She arrives and checks the whole restroom for her watch, but it's gone. The patron says, "Call the police! I was robbed!"
Was she robbed? No. That would involve someone using "a weapon or force or fear," like pointing a gun at her, or grabbing her wrist to get her to remove her watch and hand it over. Did someone steal her watch through a distraction, by covering it with a jacket as she washed her hands and then lifted it away? No; she was alone. Did she lose her watch? Yes. Sad but true. She can call the police all she wants; they aren't coming for a lost item. Additionally, the difference between a theft and a robbery is an important one in the library setting. If someone walks by and takes a patron's cell phone without him or her noticing, that's a theft. If there is a tug of war between the patron and the thief, that's a robbery. Losing that same cell phone is neither.
So, now let's consider some useful ideas for preventing thefts of library equipment, staff personal items, or patron's items.
Protecting Library Property:
Affix engraved or riveted asset tags on all high-dollar (pawnable) items. These labels should say "Property of XYZ Library" and be attached to library property that has high theft potential, like laptops or desktops from the PC lab; video game consoles; flatscreen TVs; tablets; or projectors. The presence of these tags, which should be hard for the thieves to remove, can help make these items less likely to be purchased by (legitimate) pawnshop dealers. There is a similar parallel in the automotive industry, as some parts dealers, car dealers, and repair shops are engraving expensive catalytic converters with "Property of [Owner's Name]," to make them less likely to be stolen and harder to sell to (legitimate) metal recyclers.
Continue to use cables and locks for all portable high-dollar electronics. Some libraries start out using these "anti-walk-away" devices and slowly stop, as staffers get tired of locking and unlocking them. This is an example of "not trading security for convenience," meaning keep on using security procedures and devices, even if there has never been a theft or loss. Once we start to feel like security tools are a waste of time, well, you can guess what occurs next: "What happened to our 36 laptops?"
Remind all staff to keep unused doors locked, including those leading to storage closets, utility rooms, IT server rooms, training rooms, conference rooms, staff-only rooms and offices, auditoriums, theaters, and warehouse-access areas. A thief who gains entry to an unlocked room only needs 30 seconds to walk in and out with a portable/pawnable target.
Always remember that thieves in the library don't fit a "profile." They could be any race, any age, and any gender. I have seen kids as small as 7 steal and adults as old as 85, male and female both. Don't be shy about assertively contacting patrons who appear to be stealing or getting ready to steal, if your eyes saw what they saw. Don't make false accusations, but don't rationalize theft behavior by thinking, "She must not have meant to do that" or "He probably did that by mistake."
Protecting Staff Property:
Remind all staff to keep careful track of their personal property while on the library floor. This includes their personal cellphones, car keys, purses, wallets, lunch boxes, or any other enticing item which is with them or near them (and not safely stored in the employee's locker, desk drawers, or staff-only access areas).
Remind all staff to keep track of portable library property, including (metal) building keys, key cards, library-issued cellphones, security radios, first aid kits (which may have Narcan injectors inside), and the above-mentioned electronic devices.
Helping Patrons Protect Their Property:
Many patrons place too much reliance on staff to babysit their stuff. Just like staff cannot watch patron's children at all times for them, they cannot babysit their personal possession either. We need to give gentle but constant reminders to patrons, to tell them to take their purses, backpacks, wallets, watches, or phones with them when they leave their tables. How many times have we heard the surprised complaint after a theft that, "I was just gone for a minute!" or "I only turned around for a second and it was gone!"
Watching for Thieves:
Some thieves steal to support a drug habit, others to feed themselves or their families, some steal on orders from their gang leaders, and still a small segment steal because they have a psychological compulsion to do so, even though they don't need the items to sell or to improve their lifestyles. Unlike professional thieves, who steal a warehouse full of iMacs or a semi-truck full of Sony Visios in the wee hours, most thieves in the library show noticeable pre-theft or "casing" behaviors as they stroll through your facility.
The most obvious pre-theft behavior is also not the best for a thief to do to get away unobserved: staring at what he or she wants to steal. They will often make at least two passes by a table, desk, display cabinet, or counter before they grab the item and either run out with it or hide it in their clothes or bag. Either while they are casing or just before they put their hands on it, is the perfect time for you to say, "Hello! What brings you into the library today?" or "What can I help you find today?" to knock them off their path from ideas to actions. You might be just in time to hear them mumble, "Oh, nothing, I'm good. See ya . . . " as they leave the library empty-handed.