A JCPenney security officer who apprehended an alleged shoplifter who police say tried to get away in a stranger’s car Jan. 12 is now out of a job because store policy prohibits loss-prevention officers from chasing suspects too far outside the store.
Scott Hurst, 30, of Caseyville, who also is a Fairview Heights volunteer firefighter and a member of the Army National Guard, said he knew he broke store policy, but once he saw the suspect enter an occupied car on an Interstate 64 on-ramp, his main concern was safety, not policy.
Hurst noticed a male suspect carrying a bag in the store’s fragrance section at 6:50 p.m. Jan. 12. He approached the suspect because he believed he’d stolen merchandise. That’s when the suspect bolted, beginning a chase that went out the store, up an escalator, through St. Clair Square Mall and into a parking lot.
He walks over to the passenger side, opens the door without saying anything and jumps onto this girl’s lap. I jump the fence. The driver sees me, pulls over to the shoulder. I run up, open the door, grab the guy, pull him out, throw him on the concrete, restrain him
Scott Hurst, former JCPenney loss prevention officer
“About halfway through the parking lot, I gave up the chase. I called the mall and said, ‘Hey, call Fairview Heights dispatch, let them know, my shoplifter is going across (the interstate),’” Hurst said.
Meanwhile, Hurst kept eyes on the fleeing man.
“He walks right onto the interstate, waves his arms, stops the first car that comes along,” Hurst said. “He walks over to the passenger side, opens the door without saying anything and jumps onto this girl’s lap. I jump the fence. The driver sees me, pulls over to the shoulder. I run up, open the door, grab the guy, pull him out, throw him on the concrete, restrain him.”
Police arrived and took it from there. The occupants of the vehicle were spooked but not hurt in the incident.
On his way back to the store, Hurst said he found five boxes of cologne and the suspect’s bag in the parking lot.
A day later, Cartez Dixon, 19, of St. Louis was charged with retail theft, aggravated battery in a public way, criminal trespass to a vehicle and criminal damage to property.
Most concerning was no one called the police about the foot chase until the chase made it to the interstate. Had the police department been contacted in a timely manner, the apprehension of the suspect before entering the interstate would have been highly probable
Fairview Heights Police Lt. Michael Hoguet
Fairview Heights Police Lt. Michael Hoguet wrote in a statement that the department “has no opinions or thoughts on the personnel policies of any business” in town. But police were troubled about something else.
“Following the investigation, command staff from the police department made inquiry as to how this incident transpired. Most concerning was no one called the police about the foot chase until the chase made it to the interstate,” Hoguet wrote.
He said a Fairview Heights officer was in the mall parking lot no more than a tenth of a mile away when the chase took place.
“Had the police department been contacted in a timely manner, the apprehension of the suspect before entering the interstate would have been highly probable,” Hoguet wrote.
Hurst said that as news of the incident traveled up JCPenney’s corporate ladder, word trickled back down that he’d be fired. He said his local coworkers vouched for him, urging that regional managers in charge of Hurst’s fate chastise him for breaking policy but let him keep his job.
But JCPenney made it clear Hurst had to go. He says that rather than fire him, his bosses allowed him to resign.
JCPenney maintains policies and procedures that are designed for the safety and security of our associates and customers. Upon review of the events that led to the suspect's apprehension, the loss prevention associate elected to resign from his post
Hurst worked full-time at the store from 2006 to 2009 and then from 2013 to the present, a nearly 10-year period punctuated by National Guard deployments to Qatar, Guam and England.
JCPenney’s corporate office provided a brief statement in response to a request for comment, writing: “JCPenney maintains policies and procedures that are designed for the safety and security of our associates and customers. Upon review of the events that led to the suspect’s apprehension, the loss-prevention associate elected to resign from his post.”
According to J. Patrick Murphy, a Texas-based retail security expert, that’s a common policy.
“The majority of stores say ‘do not chase.’ If you break the rule, there are no do-overs,” Murphy said.
He said at least one loss-prevention officer is killed every year, so the majority of retailers tell their employees not to chase shoplifters and allow themselves to become isolated. Murphy tracked 75 deaths of store workers, police and shoplifters since 2000, and said the store will likely get sued if a shoplifter dies.
“I started at the store level and I understand the dynamic. The adrenaline gets going and it pisses you off when somebody is getting away, but you have to keep your composure for your own safety,” Murphy said.
I knew I broke the policy...I can’t let him carjack these people, put them in danger. I couldn’t just stand there
“I knew I broke the policy,” Hurst said. “At that point, it was, ‘OK, I can’t just stand here and let them face the repercussions of me chasing this guy out here.’ I can’t let him carjack these people, put them in danger. I couldn’t just stand there.”
Hurst has backup options while he looks for a new job. The Fairview Heights Fire Department allows firefighters to work up to 32 hours a week for a modest hourly wage. Chief Brian Doyle told Hurst he’s welcome to do that as long as he needs.
Even so, that’s a cut in hours and a cut in pay. Hurst said he’s reached out to the National Guard, too, but said Illinois’ lack of a state budget has affected the Guard’s ability to offer extra duty.
“I broke the policy, I get that, but I wouldn’t change it,” Hurst said. “I do loss-prevention to protect the merchandise in the store. But outside of that, I joined the military. Felt it was part of my duty. I joined the fire department. I volunteer to run into a fire, show up to accident scenes to help people. So to see (Dixon) jump in this car, my first instinct’s going to be, ‘OK, help these people out,’ not ‘Oh, I don’t want to draw attention to the store, just going to go hide back here and let the cops deal with it.”
“I put these people in the situation,” he added. “I need to get them out of it.”