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One man’s quest to stop shoplifting in his Seattle neighborhood

Jay Gollyhorn's sign that he waves when picketing stores in Seattle. (KIRO Radio, Carolyn Ossario)

Samira Othman says she was a valued employee at the Rainier Avenue Safeway in Seattle for 10 years. But that changed when she confronted a shoplifter. Othman says that after the store merged with Albertsons, it changed its shoplifting policy to what she calls a “no-touch, no talk policy.”

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In 2016, Othman says she was working the night shift when a woman came into the store, loaded up a basket with makeup and attempted to leave without paying. When Othman confronted her, the woman lashed out and started vandalizing the store. Othman says she pulled out her pepper spray and sprayed the shoplifter on the cheek.

“She began crying and demanded the the police were called,” Othman said. “Corporate security came and watched the video and fired me on the spot after 13 years.”

Othman was devastated, but grateful she had a second job nearby, at Bartell’s, where she’d been working for 13 years. That all changed in February 2019, when an employee warned Othman to keep an eye on a shoplifter who had stolen something from the shelf. She asked the man if he had stolen something and he responded by dropping the item on the floor and leaving. Because of that exchange, Othman said she was let go.

“A corporate manager came to the store because of this incident and fired me on the spot,” Othman said. “Even though she knew I had cancer and needed the job because of the insurance to pay for chemotherapy treatments.”

Seattle shoplifting

If you ask Jay Gollyhorn, he will say that his neighborhood Rainier Avenue Safeway store is under siege by shoplifters, and the store isn’t doing much about it. He says that stories like Othman’s are part of his frustration and why he has made shoplifters and Safeway’s hands-off policy his personal crusade.

He worries that the Rainier Avenue Safeway store has so many shoplifters that it will close.

“My partner and I went over to get some chicken fried steak and there wasn’t any,” Gollyhorn said. “I asked an employee where it all went and they said they can’t even put meat on the shelves fast enough because the shoplifters take it all.”

This frustration boiled over recently and Gollyhorn felt compelled to intervene when he spotted a shoplifter. The police eventually arrived and arrested the man. He was later released. Video of the entire encounter went viral and Gollyhorn started the Facebook page: We Demand Safe Shopping.

Gollyhorn says the Seattle Police Department sent out what he calls an “eye in the sky” or a box on stilts that holds a police officer to monitor the parking lot from the South Precinct. Sergeant Sean Whitcomb with the SPD says complaints about the “eye” lead to its removal.

Gollyhorn and his followers have also picketed several Safeway stores demanding that Safeway stop letting shoplifters off the hook and for police to arrest shoplifters and keep them in jail.

Safeway says it can’t talk about its shoplifting policy and sales/losses are proprietary information. It did release this statement:

Safeway is working closely with the South Precinct of the Seattle Police Department to address shoplifting and safety concerns at our store in the Rainier Square Plaza. We utilize a multi-faceted and strategic approach in our partnership, and have been seeing improvement. However, we do know this will take a consistent effort, with all in the community working together, to achieve a long-term solution. As such, we will join other retailers and the Seattle Police Department to host a public meeting about shoplifting and safety in retail environments in October (date pending) in order to obtain important feedback from the community. With respect to Mr. Gollyhorn’s specific concerns, we have reached out to invite him to meet with Safeway executives and officers from the South Precinct so we can have a meaningful dialogue about his specific concerns and proposed solutions.

Bartell’s Communication Manager, Hannah Kubiak, says she couldn’t talk about Othman’s case, but she did confirm Bartell’s official shoplifter policy states: “Employees are not to engage with anyone who could be suspected of shoplifting or who is blatantly shoplifting as a precaution to keep us and our customers safe.”

Kubiak says as a result of this policy, it’s a green light for shoplifters.

“They are brazen and bold,” Kubiak said. “They walk up to our store manager or our employees and say, ‘I know you can’t do anything about this’ and they walk out with the product.”

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Kubiak says they changed their policy to shift the focus from confrontation to safety to protect their employees and customers. They also stopped reporting the thefts.

“The shoplifters weren’t being prosecuted,” Kubiak said. “They were being released back out into our communities, just to do the same thing day-in-and-day-out. So we had taken a step back and said we’re not going to take the time to report all of these instances.”

Kubiak confirmed that they have started to report shoplifting crimes again after a recent town hall where the Seattle Police Department urged them to report the crimes. That way, at least the data can accurately reflect the amount of crime that’s happening.

“We will continue to call SPD every time until there comes a point where these prolific offenders are prosecuted and something is done,” Kubiak said.

Whitcomb confirmed that the Safeway store on Rainier Avenue has the highest call volume in the entire South Precinct.

“We are very much aware of this and continue our focus on arresting prolific thieves and deterring crime through increased police presence, crime prevention through environmental design, and emphasis patrols,” Whitcomb said.

Safeway is planning a public meeting in October to address shoplifting concerns.

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