Wednesday, October 4, 2023 Oct 4, 2023
85° F Dallas, TX

Diary of a Department Store Dick

My days and nights fighting crime at a Plano mall.
By Paul McDonnold |
Mall Security Illustration
John S. Dykes

In early 2019, I found myself needing something I hadn’t had in a long time: a part-time job. For more than a decade, I’d worked as a freelance writer. It hardly made me rich. But I counted it a blessing to work from home doing something I enjoyed, until a major illness kept me from working at all for most of 2018, while generating new bills. Now my health was restored, but my finances were sick. I was a 51-year-old man in need of a gig. So I went to the mall.

At the executive offices of one of the large department stores at a mall in Plano, the hiring manager told me the store needed sales associates. But there was also another option I might consider: security.

It was a plainclothes position, behind the scenes, monitoring video from cameras spread around the store like far-flung eyes. I would communicate with uniformed security guards, store management, and mall and even local police about theft, customer injuries, active shooters, and the like.

“You’re the traffic director,” he said.

I didn’t play hard to get.

The work had a rhythm, hours of boredom followed by bursts of crisis. At first I shadowed a guy who had been on the job a few months.

“Something is going to happen tonight,” he predicted as I sat beside him. As closing time approached, the store remained quiet. Then he straightened in his chair. On screen were two women with a young child, carrying some men’s Polo merchandise through housewares. This agitated my trainer, though I didn’t understand why. Who would steal with a kid along? I was naive.

“She looked at the camera!” he blurted. One of the women concealed the shirts, and they darted toward an exit. He grabbed the phone and paged the housewares manager. We watched anxiously as 15 or 20 seconds elapsed and she scooted into frame. It was too late. The thieves had vanished into the night.

Men and women; young and old; white, black, and brown, I watched them all pilfer, everything from $3 candy bars to four-figure handbags. You couldn’t take it personally, yet it was hard not to. “Shortage,” loss of merchandise, was a serious cost of business, and this is not an easy time for malls. Since being invented in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956, they have progressed from shopping oddities to a cultural icon and are now endangered, even in Dallas, arguably their ideal habitat.

For me, a child of the mall’s heyday, they had always been fascinating human aquariums. Now I was paid to watch one via video. But it could become intensely boring, especially when the store was slow and there was little to look at but employees and merchandise. I noticed odd things. The mannequins, so unobtrusive most of the time, looked ghostly in their alabaster skins. Some had navels but no faces. Others lacked heads. There was one in the men’s department that had hands with movable digits, which I saw two miscreant teens form into an obscene gesture.

A suspicious mind was a hazard of the job.

I used the time to think, practice Spanish, whatever made the clock spin. When the boredom became intolerable, when I thought my eyes were about to dissolve, that’s when something wild would happen. My first solo action did not go well. I noticed a woman walking past lingerie with about a dozen purses dangling from her hands. Agitated sales associates came into view, yelling and pointing, and then my phone rang. Nearby employees were calling for help. Overcome by nerves and indecision, I stammered that the security guard was at lunch.

My next move was to page management. This required looking at a paper to see who was on duty and, optimally, knowing who managed which department, which I had yet to memorize. Even following the thief’s movements required more skill on the cameras than I could muster. As I stared stupidly at the screen, a second woman, a confederate, came into view, laden with more handbags. She turned toward an exit. A man and woman entering the store found themselves in the middle of the chaos. The man swung a big shopping bag at the thief. It made contact and dropped her to the floor. She popped up still clutching purses and raced out the exit.

A suspicious mind was a hazard of the job. Often I followed someone’s movements only to find that, in the end, she innocently paid for her merchandise. What drew my attention? A hundred small things: carrying pricey merchandise out of its department; moving items around (a practice called staging); bulky clothes on a hot day. Maybe in a dystopic future, security cameras will scan the brains of shoppers for neuro-chemical signs of mal intent. Maybe the video feed will flash an alert: SUBJECT PONDERING THEFT! Until then, I had only my training and imperfect human judgment.

Some heists happened so fast there was little time to act. Once at 6:09 pm a middle-aged woman with a huge, white purse entered the store with two teens who looked like they might be her sons. She walked to a counter, opened the purse, and raked watches into it. One of the teens went behind the counter, crouched down, and waddled along picking off additional merchandise. A manager came running, and the suspects raced out the same doors they’d entered. It was 6:11 pm.

There were all kinds of thieves. Some I felt sorry for. One guy bought a shirt and later slipped another into the bag, a buy-one, steal-one deal. I remember the profound look of shame on his face when we caught him and a manager escorted him out. Another type were what I called “thrill” thieves. They were usually juveniles, worked in teams, and appeared to be from well-off homes. I found them the least sympathetic. One day a pair of these jokers purloined a hat right out of the store, then hung around in the mall to exult. I called a manager as they disappeared into a nearby snack shop. He followed them with a guard in tow, recovered the hat, and told them never to come back.

One Sunday, I was alone in the room when thunderstorms rolled across North Texas. The store was mostly empty, and I joked with the security guard that it would be a quiet day. Heavy weather deterred shoppers and thieves alike. But after the squall blew through, three rough-looking guys entered by men’s shoes. As I followed their movements, the phone rang. One of the managers informed me he’d seen a pistol under one of their jackets. I radioed the security guard as the three split up. I worked the cameras feverishly and pinballed my eyes as one appeared in handbags, another in men’s sportswear. They didn’t stop to inspect merchandise, just cast glances around in a way I’d come to recognize as suspicious.

The job was enough to grow your faith in humanity, and I mean that.

The phone rang. A sales associate said someone was trying to lift wallets. I took the description and found the person in question. It wasn’t one of the three. I paged the men’s manager, who approached the person in question, who said he was only trying the merchandise out for size in his pockets. Another call came in, this time from a manager. Someone was trying to pass fake twenties. I took the description. It was not one of the three I was following. I spotted the guy exiting into the mall and informed mall security. The phone rang, another manager. She suspected an employee was on the take and asked me to watch the person. I made a note. It was the craziest day I’d had, but my training and experience had gelled into something resembling competence. And between me, the guard on duty, and management, we scrambled enough attention on the three suspicious men that their threat seemed to evaporate under the glare. They left, not having stolen anything as far as we could tell.

The job was enough to grow your faith in humanity, and I mean that. The vast majority of shoppers never showed any inclination to steal. One evening, as closing time approached, I noticed a romantic quality to the store. My eyes floated from scene to scene as business slowed and shoppers drifted toward the exits. Sales associates prepared to count their registers. Jewelry glittered behind glass cases. Printed dresses hung from shining racks. A couple strolled hand in hand through housewares. Children played hide-and-seek in men’s suits.

The store was a community, one I had a role in protecting. In the end, I found the job a refreshing change to the isolation of self-employment. Though I had approached the specter of part-time work as a necessary evil to be endured while I rehabbed my professional life, it became another blessing.

I pushed my chair under the table, turned out the lights, and locked the room for the night, the video monitors gleaming their images in the darkness.