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Playing Nice in the Sandbox: An Examination into the Working Relationships between Retail Store Detectives and Public Law Enforcement Officers

Published onJun 01, 2017
Playing Nice in the Sandbox: An Examination into the Working Relationships between Retail Store Detectives and Public Law Enforcement Officers


This study explores the working relationship between store detectives and public law enforcement officers. Thirty semi-structured interviews were conducted with store detectives from two national retail chains. The results of this study indicate that store detectives have a positive working relationship with police and engage in active cooperation with them. In addition, the presence of community development units and organized retail crime task forces enhance active cooperation between the two parties. Findings from this study can be used by both academics and practitioners to promote strong relationships between law enforcement and the retail security industry.


Over the last 40 years, private security industry’s growth has become immense. Globally, the private security industry has expanded such that private security personnel and their resources outnumber public law enforcement (Sarre & Prenzler, 2000). Expenditure estimates suggest the total cost of private security operations has surpassed that of public law enforcement in the 1970s; furthermore, the number of private security personnel has continued to rise to a point where they now outnumber public law enforcement officers by a ratio of two to one. Future labor force estimates project the private security industry to grow while law enforcement hires are stagnated  or are in decline (Cunningham & Taylor, 1984). By 2024, the private security industry is slated to grow by five percent, thus adding approximately 55,000 new jobs to the workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Bureau of Labor, 2015). As a result, the costs of managing the security workforces are also expected to increase. The most recent estimates suggest that the security industry is responsible for 30 billion dollars in costs (Cunningham, Strauchs, & Van Meter, 1991). This estimate does not include the additional costs of security equipment and surveillance technology.

The origin of security research and the explanation of its dormancy

Since its inception in the early 1970s, research on private security issues has remained sporadic and disaggregated. It was not until the early 1980s that a seminal piece titled The Hallcrest Report (Cunningham, Strauchs, & Van Meter, 1990) broke new ground by introducing academics and industry practitioners to an unprecedented examination into the interactions and cooperative exchanges between law enforcement and private security officers. Although Hallcrest acted as an impetus for follow-up investigations into the security labor force, examinations into these areas continue to remain quelled.

With the foundation laid for research in security studies, why has the security discipline remained dormant while research in other criminal justice disciplines continues to proliferate? The answer rests in one of two explanations. First, security research has been overshadowed by research in other disciplines like law enforcement (Shearing & Stenning, 1983). Simply put, law enforcement research takes priority over security research. This is unfortunate since both play essential roles in maintaining order in society (Van Staden & Sarre, 2007; Walby & Lippert, 2014), both share similar functions (i.e. detecting suspicious behavior and managing the same criminal element) (see Manzo, 2010), and both have similar objectives to control crime (Shearing & Stenning, 1981; National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1976). However, the subordinate status of security research does not entirely explain why there is such a lack of security-related studies in general; nor does the subordinate status explain why those who have chosen to publish on security related issues (i.e. Chuvala and Fischer, 1994; Fischer, Halibozek, and Walters, 2013), remain distant from the very organization about which they write.

The answer rests in how difficult it is to secure access to data in private corporations. Private organizations are fragile entities that operate in an environment of constant flux. Shareholders value a company based upon its current state and anticipated future performance. Negative scrutiny damages a company’s image and creates uncertainty in the mind of the investor. In an environment characterized by relentless instability, just one incident has the potential to bring an incredible amount of civil damages and negative media publicity. For example, Dillard’s© clothing chain was ordered to pay over 22 million dollars in damages after a Dillard’s© employee racially profiled and made malicious false statements against a minority college athlete (Fuquay, 1999).

Retail store detectives: Roles and functions

In 2012, United States retailers were confronted with $44.2 billion in inventory shrinkage (Hollinger & Adams, 2012). Inventory shrinkage is described as the discrepancy between logged inventory and physical on-hand inventory. Many of these discrepancies arise from shoplifting, employee theft, and vendor fraud; however, it is difficult for retailers to identify where losses originate (Beck, 2014). To investigate inventory shrinkage, retailers hire specialized private security personnel known as retail loss prevention officers (also known as store detectives). Store detectives are not sworn law enforcement officers, but are considered to be more skilled than for-profit contract security guards (Walby & Lippert, 2015). The use of store detectives is pervasive throughout the retail industry. According to Hayes (2000), almost two-thirds of retailers employ some form of loss prevention staff to protect their company against shrinkage.

Currently, retailers use one of two models to staff their loss prevention departments. The first model is a contract model. With contract models, an independent security agency is contracted to provide security for retailers. On the other hand, proprietary security personnel are hired, trained, and paid by the retailers (Cunningham & Taylor, 1984). Store detectives typically fall under the proprietary security model.

Store detectives are multi-faceted corporate security personnel who protect the assets of the retailer by conducting internal audits, accident investigations, and theft investigations. Store detectives work in plain clothes and are tasked with investigating and apprehending citizens suspected of criminal offenses (i.e., shoplifting, credit card fraud, organized retail crime) (Singh, 2005). The extensive role they play in the criminal justice system necessitates each store detective be well versed in legal issues such as laws of arrest, detainment techniques, interview and interrogation, and the use of force (Curtis, 1983; Manley, 2004).

Mass private property and the convergence of law enforcement and retail store detectives

Until the advent of mass private property, private security and public law enforcement operated independently (Shearing & Stenning, 1981). The deteriorating conditions in United States inner cities pushed citizens away from the inner city to the suburbs in search of safer living conditions. An after-effect of the migration was the development of large, private shopping complexes known as “mass private property” (Shearing & Stenning, 1983) to provide customers with a safe to place shop (National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1976). These complexes attract a variety of criminals and create surges in crime. As a result, corporations are plagued with crimes traditionally handled by law enforcement (Albanese, 1986; Sarre & Prenzler, 2000).

To manage these crimes, retailers employ a security staff to fill traditional law enforcement roles. Thus, an opportunity is created for security personnel to interact with public law enforcement (Nalla, Madan, & Mesko, 2009). Part of the interaction between security personnel and law enforcement involves their working relationship. Effective cooperation between security and law enforcement depends on the working relationship they have with one another (Nalla, Hoffman, & Christian, 1996). To date, no study has investigated the relationship between store detectives and public law enforcement. This is unfortunate since law enforcement officers and store detectives frequently interact with one another. For example, in 2015, 15 Wal-Mart stores in Jacksonville, Florida produced 5,298 calls for service (Inside Edition, 2016). The frequency and importance of these interactions necessitates an examination into how the two parties interact with one another. This study was the first attempt to analyze the working relationships between store detectives and law enforcement. The goal of this study is to identify variables that contribute to healthy working relationships so better partnerships can be forged between the retail security industry and public law enforcement. 

A review of the literature

Nature and extent of the private-public partnership

Kakalik and Wildhorn (1971) assert that private security personnel and public law enforcement should cooperate in the following ways:

  • Public police respond to calls for service from private security officers.

  • Public police provide private security officers with vital information such as criminal arrest records.

  • Private security officers transfer their criminal investigations to public law enforcement.

  • Private security officers conduct surveillance on wanted criminals and disseminate the information to public law enforcement.

  • Private security officers keep public law enforcement abreast of crimes that occur on private property.

Inter-agency attitudes

Inter-agency interaction allows for the formation of certain attitudes and biases by one party toward another. Law enforcement and private security are not exempt from these biases. Previous literature that examined inter-agency attitudes suggests that public law enforcement officers hold disproportionally unfavorable attitudes toward the private security industry. Nalla, Madan, and Mesko (2009) document that law enforcement officers hold significantly less favorable views of the private security industry compared to the views the private security industry holds toward public law enforcement. Similarly, Nalla, Hoffman, and Christian (1996) report that 75 percent of security guards hold favorable attitudes toward law enforcement, but 70 percent of security guards also felt that law enforcement officers did not share these mutual feelings. Private security guards are also significantly more likely to believe that law enforcement could do more to promote a working relationship with the private security industry (Nalla & Hwang, 2006).

Inter-agency cooperation

The National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1976) asserts that information sharing leads to increased efforts to combat crime. In the criminal justice system, processing offenders and protecting property is contingent on how well information is shared between law enforcement and private security (Shearing & Stenning, 1981). Research suggests private security and law enforcement have minimal cooperation with one another (Cunningham & Taylor, 1984). Public law enforcement is averse to information sharing and establishing lines of communication with the private security industry (Noaks, 2008). Sixty-eight percent of surveyed security guards feel that law enforcement is unwilling to share information (Nalla, Hoffman, & Christian, 1996). Consequently, what appears to be collaboration between the two parties is nothing more than two separate agencies working independently toward the same goal (Noaks, 2008).

Explaining the strained relationship

The reasons why law enforcement refuses to cooperate are reduced to three explanations:

  • Private security and public law enforcement are largely unaware of each other’s operations.

  • Private security and public law enforcement have competing interests.

  • Law enforcement does not trust the private security industry with traditional policing tasks.

First, the National Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1976) postulates that the private security industry and public law enforcement do not form active partnerships with one another because the two agencies are running concurrent but independent investigations.

Second, law enforcement serves the interests of the public, whereas private security personnel serve the interests of the employer. Investigations are not without consequences. Many private organizations elect to not make investigations public because they could damage the company’s image. Many private organizations elect to handle things “in-house,” distributing their own form of private “justice” (i.e., collecting restitution rather than electing for prosecution) (Shearing & Stenning, 1981, p. 223). This creates strife between law enforcement and the private security industry because law enforcement feels they need to be involved in what they consider traditional crimes. However, private agencies remain largely closed off to outsiders. Police may be the prosecuting law enforcement agency, but it is the private security officer who controls whether public law enforcement is granted access to the property (Shearing & Stenning, 1983).

One of the most convincing explanations for why law enforcement refuses to cooperate with the private security industry pertains to how law enforcement views private security personnel. Historically, private security guards have received poor training or no training at all. In addition, there is no standard for measuring their qualifications. Less than half of all states do not license or certify their private security officers (Cunningham & Taylor, 1984).

Police do not view private security as equal partners; rather, they view private security personnel as poorly paid, poorly educated, and poorly trained mimics who should not be granted access to law enforcement investigations (Nalla & Hummer, 1999; Kakalik & Wildhorn, 1971; Shearing & Stenning, 1981). The disrespect held by law enforcement towards private security translates into attenuated confidence in the investigatory abilities of private security personnel. Evidence suggests law enforcement rates private security personnel as somewhat or completely incompetent at apprehending criminals or reducing crime (Cunningham & Taylor, 1984). 


Obtaining access to the sample

This study was part of a larger examination into the behavior of retail store detectives. Thirty semi-structured interviews were conducted with store detectives from two national retail chains. A purposive sampling method was used to obtain the sample. These retailers were included in the study because:

  1. They hired many full-time, proprietary retail store detectives.

  2. They shared common characteristics with the average bigbox retailer (size, types of merchandise sold, and a national presence).

  3. They were willing to participate in the study.

The sample was split between two companies: Company A and Company B. Company A employed full-time store detectives to work in each of their stores. Company B employed full-time store detectives who worked out of    a “home” store, but also traveled to other stores to handle shrink-related issues. To  obtain the sample, the principle investigator engaged in a series  of phone meetings with Company A’s head of security. During these phone meetings, the principal investigator outlined the purpose of the study, as well as the proposed risks and benefits of being involved in the research project. As part of the agreement between Company A and the principal investigator, the principal investigator was asked to furnish a copy of the interview question list for Company A to review and to send to the retailer’s legal department. Company A agreed to participate in the study as long as another retailer was brought in to dilute the results of the study in case the responses were accidentally leaked to the public. As part of this agreement, Company A placed the principal investigator in contact with Company B’s head of security. The principal investigator used the same process to obtain permission from Company B as was used with Company A.

After obtaining permission to conduct the study, Company A and Company B placed the principal investigator in contact with their respective field operation units. Company A arranged for the principal investigator to conduct the interviews with the store detectives in one jurisdiction of stores. The principal investigator requested the geographic area be expanded to include multiple jurisdictions, but this request was denied by Company A’s legal department. Company B arranged for the principal investigator to interview each store detective inside the retailer’s corporate office. The store detectives for Company B were provided with meeting times to speak with the principal investigator. To protect these store detectives’ identities, their names, genders, employer names, and ages were not recorded. Instead, each officer was assigned a code (i.e. Interview 1) to protect his or her identity. A small number of female store detectives were interviewed for this study. To protect the female detectives’ identities, only the male pronoun will be used to describe their responses.

Description of the sample

The sample consisted of 30 non-salaried retail store detectives who were assigned to work in store locations that ranged from South Carolina to South Florida. Their primary responsibilities were to engage in internal and external theft investigations, conduct audits and inventory checks, and maintain the safety of the customers and store employees. However, the store detectives’ primary responsibilities consisted of detecting, investigating, and apprehending shoplifters who stole merchandise from the store. This role created the most opportunities for store detectives to interact with police departments.


The working relationship between store detectives and law enforcement officers was examined by asking a set of pre-written questions followed by an opportunity for the store detectives to provide an open-ended response. On some occasions, store detectives interacted with multiple police agencies. The series of pre-written questions are as follows:

  • “Can you please describe the law enforcement agency that responds to your store?”

  • “Is this law enforcement agency federal, state, county, city, or local jurisdiction?”

  • “Can you please describe the working relationship you have with your responding law enforcement agency?”

  • “In general, would you describe the relationship as harmonious or contentious? Why do you feel this way?”

Depending on their response, a series of informal follow-up questions were asked to gain a better understanding of their working relationships with their designated police department.


The principal investigator interviewed Company A’s store detectives at their stores. Company A was highly sensitive to sexual harassment allegations. Therefore, Company A advised the principal investigator to conduct the interviews inside the loss prevention office in view of a camera. However, since the office was also used by other store detectives while on duty, the interviews were moved to a makeshift interview room inside an unused area in the retail store. Company B arranged to have the principal investigator conduct interviews in a conference room inside their corporate office.

The legal departments of both Company A and Company B’s were highly concerned about protecting the identity of their loss prevention staff. As part of the agreement, the principal investigator was not allowed to electronically record any of the participants’ responses. All data gathered during the interview had to be recorded by hand using a pen and notepad. If the principal investigator had to record longer quotes or phrases, the interview was temporarily paused by the principal investigator to allow the quote or phrase   to be recorded. Despite the restrictions, valuable information was obtained.

Analytical approach

After the interviews were conducted, the data was transcribed into a word processing program for descriptive analysis. The relevant working relationship questions were extracted from the rest of the interview questions and placed into a single word-processing document. Microanalysis was conducted on each of the questions. A codebook was created to log themes that emerged from the literature. The sections were separated to identify patterns between the responses. In all, 19 codes were created and main themes were developed. The main themes appear below.


The store detectives interacted with a total of 25 different police agencies. The agencies’ sizes ranged from small local departments to large urban agencies that contained multiple districts. In addition, each district was treated as a separate encounter since they were located in different areas of the city and were headed by different supervisory staff.

A positive working relationship

The attitudes that store detectives harbor toward public law enforcement are consistent with the findings in the previous literature. Store detectives hold overall positive views toward their local law enforcement agencies. Store detectives who held positive views toward law enforcement characterized their working relationships as good to excellent. Generally, these store detectives felt that they “got along” with the police. The negative interactions were the minority; negative perceptions toward the police appeared to be directed toward one particular police officer, rather than entire police department.

Cooperative partnerships

Cooperative partnerships were a central component to the working relationship. Store detectives formed partnerships with local law enforcement agencies to investigate crimes from petty larceny, grand theft (i.e., embezzlement), and organized retail crime. Store detectives assisted law enforcement in several ways; however, the most common assistance provided by the store detectives involved providing the police with video evidence for court. Store detectives provided law enforcement with video evidence for retail theft investigations as well as other law enforcement investigations such as hit-and run accidents, credit card fraud, and embezzlement cases.

Store detectives also assisted their police departments with obtaining information from suspects. This included contacting local law enforcement to interview suspects to provide the police with information obtained from suspects during the security interviews. Store detectives hold a unique position, as they can interview suspects without being bound by constitutional restrictions; more specifically, they are not required to advise suspects of their Miranda rights. Therefore, store detectives can freely interview subjects and gather information. The suspect’s testimony can be turned over to law enforcement when they arrive to the store. Store Detective 30 claimed that when he apprehends a perpetrator of organized retail crime, he contacts law enforcement to see if they are interested in interviewing the suspect.  Store Detectives 11 and 25 perform their own interviews on suspects before law enforcement arrives at the store. When suspects refuse to speak with law enforcement, the store detectives provide the police with the suspect’s testimony from the prior interview. As Store Detective 11 commented:

As a store detective, I don’t have to read shoplifters their rights, so when the cop comes and asks the shoplifters questions, and the shoplifters refuse to say anything, I will tell the cop everything the shoplifter told me when he was apprehended.

Law enforcement enjoyed working with the store detectives because the store detectives’ investigations often led to larger law enforcement investigations. Store detective 3 stated that he worked a felony cash theft that involved a cashier who happened to be a police recruit for the local police agency. He contacted the agency to advise them of the investigation. The agency sent two internal affairs investigators to review the video with the store detective. Store Detective 25 apprehended a member of a credit card fraud ring. After he notified police of his apprehension, he turned the individual over to the police who then followed up on the investigation. The investigation led to the apprehension of eight members of organized crime who were involved with $300,000 in credit fraud. This case gave the police department a lot of publicity.

The assistance provided to law enforcement by store detectives was reciprocated by police in several ways. These included:

  • Law enforcement provides store detectives with backup when they approached a shoplifter.

  • Law enforcement used their police powers to assist store detectives for suspects that escaped custody.

Law enforcement provided store detectives with backup when they approached a shoplifter. For example, Store Detective 10 stated, “If we know (officer name redacted) was working, we ask him to go to the store to hang out (in case a shoplifter attempted to flee). (Officer name redacted) says ‘yeah, I’m just hangin’ in the medians, I’ll be right over.’” Store detectives would also send text messages to individual police officers like “I have one for you,” to provide an officer with enough time to position himself or herself outside the store in case a shoplifter attempted to flee. This type of backup was especially useful since many of the store detectives operated in areas where suspects attempted to flee.

In turn, police also provided assistance to the store detectives. By nature, store detectives operate with ambiguous regulation; apprehending shoplifters is not a clear-cut process. Sometimes, store detectives suspected customers of shoplifting, but did not have probable cause to detain them. In some  of these cases, store detectives called upon law enforcement to apprehend customers who were suspected of shoplifting, but could not be approached. Store Detective 12 detailed a case where he knew customers had taken merchandise, but he did not have enough evidence to stop them. He called a patrol officer to perform a traffic stop on the vehicle. When the officer stopped and secured permission to search the vehicle, the officer found all the stolen merchandise from the retailer. The police called the store detective and allowed him to retrieve the stolen merchandise. When Store Detective 23 is unable to stop shoplifters for the same reason, he contacts his police agency and provides them with their driver’s license. In return, the police agency provides him with the necessary information to fill out a criminal complaint.

Store detectives and police departments display favorable attitudes toward one another. Store Detective 2 commented that his police department compliments the entire loss prevention department for the assistance they provide to their agency. Officer 28 received praise from his local police agency enforcement after he assisted them with a burglary investigation involving customer car break-ins. Officer 25 received a formal accommodation from his local law enforcement agency when he helped them investigate and apprehend an organized retail crime ring.


One reason why store detectives and law enforcement worked well together pertained to the trust that police held toward store detectives. Law enforcement trusted store detectives to provide them with accurate information that would hold up in a court of law. Although the overall trust police held toward citizens varied, trust indicates the health of the working relationship. Store Detective 25 commented that low levels of trust sometimes created contention between him and his police department: “(Agency name redacted) gives shoplifters NTAs (notice to appear citations) even when they fight with me … they take 35 minutes to respond, and when they do, they ask you questions instead of the shoplifters, there is no consistency.” This sentiment appeared to be in the minority. Many store detectives stated that police placed great trust in their abilities to provide them with a solid case. Not surprisingly, the more positive interactions a police officer had with the store detective, the higher trust they placed in their abilities. As Store Detective 12 commented:

Everything is good based on the amount of times they respond, they know my busts are legit, they ask me about what happened, but they know it’s legit, they read the shoplifter their rights and people fess up, they tell me good job and they will see me next time.

Another store detective commented, “(agency name redacted) love how thorough I am. They know when they show the case is a done deal” (Store Detective 20). Store Detective 23 stated that his local police agency places so much trust in him that they no longer review his narrative that he provides them for court. Store Detective 19 stated that the prosecuting attorneys in his jurisdiction trust him so much they no longer subpoena him to court.


Police and store detectives experience comradeship with one another. Store detectives commented that police agencies lauded them on their efforts to apprehend criminals as well as maintain high levels of professionalism. Police often praised store detectives on various aspects of their work, including their proficiency at apprehending shoplifters, as well as their investigatory and decision-making abilities. For example, one police officer praised a store detective for his ability to catch shoplifters by saying, “man we need to sit out in front of the store because you guys catch so much.” Another store detective stated that police would often tell shoplifters, “that guy (the store detective) is good” (Store Detective 12). Camaraderie between the store detectives and the police did not develop immediately. In fact, it took several positive interactions for the store detectives to gain the respect of the police. As one store detective explained, “At first I thought they (the police) were ‘prickish,’ but soon after they were really impressed with the way I carried myself, and they said I should take up a career in law enforcement” (Store Detective 3). Interestingly, some store detectives that were interviewed were prior law enforcement who became store detectives because it paid better than law enforcement. Not surprisingly, their previous experience as police officers enhanced the rapport between them and the police. One store detective commented that he displayed his police paraphernalia  in the loss prevention office and that the police were pleased to see he had previous experience in law enforcement. This store detective was well aware of how being a former police officer aided building rapport with the local department. Store Detective 13 commented, “That thin blue line still exists.” Several of the store detectives were on a first name basis with the police officers. Some store detectives even had the personal cell phone numbers in case they needed to contact them about a particular case, or if they just wanted a faster response time. Store Detective 23 commented on his relationship with his local law enforcement agency:

So far really good, the department has a shoplifting tactical unit. I met two guys from there and they were really cool. I contacted them, and they gave me their personal cell phone numbers. If we just had something happen, they will be on it.

Enhancing the relationship: The presence of community development units and ORC task forces

The presence of police task forces significantly influenced the working relationship between store detectives and public law enforcement. Organized retail crime is a general term for the large scale theft of retail items by professional shoplifters, or organized groups of shoplifters, with the intent to sell the goods to a “fence,” or someone who purchases stolen merchandise for a fraction of its original value (Finklea, 2012). Local police agencies employed two types of task forces that interacted with the store detectives. The first was a community development task force and the second was an organized retail crime (ORC) task force. The store detectives described the community development task force as a traditional community-oriented police strategy. The objective of the community development task force was to engage local residents in identifying and solving criminogenic problems within their respective communities. ORC task forces had different objectives. In select communities, shoplifting and ORC had increased to a point where local police dedicated specific officers to handle retail theft investigations. Although ORC units did respond to low-level shoplifting complaints, their primary objective was to investigate and apprehend members of organized retail crime rings, as well as their fences. Although community development units and ORC task forces had different objectives, they both contained one or more of the following characteristics that helped enhance their working relationships with store detectives:

  • Dedicated police liaisons who interacted with store detectives.

  • Increased levels of engagement by police toward loss prevention efforts.

  • An enhanced perception that police supported loss prevention efforts.

  • Active partnerships between police and different investigators within the retail organization.

Store detectives enjoyed working with task forces because it gave them an opportunity to interact with the local police departments, and allowed them to engage in joint investigations with the task forces. Store Detective   1 commented that his town’s community development unit frequently stops by the store to chat with him about issues that occur in a low-income housing development project located adjacent to the store. Since the residents shop at the retailer, the police felt the need to include them in their community policing efforts. In many cases, the benefits of these community development and ORC units increased the positive interactions police had with the store detectives. Police actually liked coming to the store to process shoplifters. Officer 21 commented: “(Police agency) likes being involved. They have a community development unit; the partnership aspect allows us to work together. It is so much easier because they love coming to the store; and it’s a free case for them.” Another store detective commented, “It’s just the way they (the police) respond, they are always there, just great, they actually care” (Store Detective 25). One store detective mentioned that he enjoys working with a specific individual of the ORC task force in his local sheriff’s department by stating, “I work with (officer’s name redacted) of the (police agency name redacted). When the task force asks me for information, I will provide it to them. I will let them see the video and I will get the information ready for them” (Store Detective 11). Store Detective 30’s police agency is notorious in the local area for concentrating their efforts on ORC activity. Store Detective 30 mentioned that his police agency gained so much notoriety from apprehending members of ORC that his local agency frequently travels outside their jurisdiction just to apprehend members of ORC. This store detective takes it upon himself to act as a liaison between the local police and senior ORC private investigators in his company. This store detective admitted that his goal was to eventually become an ORC investigator.

Task forces increase optimism about a positive working relationship

The idea of developing an ORC task force made the store detectives optimistic about their working relationships with law enforcement. One store detective commented that his current working relationship with police needed improvement and this improvement would come with the development of an ORC task force. He commented: “It’s a one way street, they call me to get video, times, dates, and store credits. I call the police (to request information) and the detective never follows through; but they are starting a task force which should bump up the level of involvement” (Store Detective 29). Whether currently in place or planning to be implemented in the future, community development units and ORC task forces have positive effects on the working relationship between retail store security and local police agencies.

Discussion and future implications

The majority of store detectives hold positive views toward their working relationship with law enforcement. According to the store detectives, law enforcement officers harbor positive attitudes toward them. This data partially supports previous research conducted by Nalla, Madan, and Mesko (2009) and Nalla, Hoffman and Christian (1996) that suggests private security personnel harbor favorable views toward law enforcement, but law enforcement did not reciprocate feelings toward private security. One explanation for this discrepancy is that public law enforcement officers view store detectives and contract security guards differently. Store detectives are corporate security officers, and corporate security officers are considered more skilled compared to security guards who work for contracted for-profit agencies (Walby & Lippert 2015).

Store detectives form strong partnerships with their local law enforcement agencies. This data directly contrasts previous research suggesting law enforcement and private security do not cooperate (see Cunningham & Taylor, 1984; Noaks, 2008). First, unlike private security guards who may intermittently call law enforcement for assistance, store detectives and law enforcement have very frequent interactions with one another. Police also heavily rely on the equipment and technology possessed by the retailers to conduct law enforcement investigations. Mass private property is used by a number of criminals before, during, and after crimes. Surveillance technology possessed by these retailers rival some government agencies. However, video recording (DVR) equipment is difficult to operate and is impossible to gain access to without a warrant. Therefore, store detectives facilitate police access to DVR equipment. Store detectives are the only ones qualified to operate the equipment and control whether law enforcement has to take additional steps to secure a warrant for the footage. This parallels research that suggests law enforcement and private security act as, “one big police force,” but the relationship is largely controlled by private security since they have jurisdiction over private property (Shearing & Stenning, 1983, p.503).

One of the most reliable predictors of a healthy working relationship between law enforcement and store detectives are police task forces such as community development or ORC task forces. Police Departments who had organized retail crime task forces dedicated to handling organized retail crime issues positively influenced how well the department worked with retail store detectives. Community development units and ORC units employ the use of law enforcement liaison officers who act as a link between the retailers and the local law enforcement agencies. Store detectives who operated  in a jurisdiction with ORC units conducted joint investigations that routinely led to the apprehension of members of organized crime. Interviews suggest that store detectives were very satisfied with their working relationships with these units. In addition, the promise to create an ORC task force generated optimism among store detectives. One reason why these units are so effective at facilitating cooperation between law enforcement and the retail security industry is that retailers perceive the task forces as police attempts to prioritize retail theft. When store detectives felt that law enforcement cared about their jobs, the store detectives worked assiduously to ensure a good partnership was maintained.

Establishing and enhancing future active partnerships

Practitioners who seek to create active partnerships between retail store detectives and local law enforcement agencies should consider taking the following measures:

  • Develop a shoplifting task force.

  • Designate one police officer to act as a liaison between retailers and law enforcement.

  • Extend current community policing initiatives to include retail store security.

Although an ORC task force is one of the most effective ways to enhance the relationship between store detectives and public law enforcement, the costs of maintaining an ORC unit may exceed the benefits. Interviews with the store detectives suggest that ORC  units were developed in response to   a surge in retail crimes in the local area. Some jurisdictions may not be impacted by retail related crimes to a degree that warrants an ORC task force.

One alternative to a dedicated ORC task force is to designate an officer from each department (or division in larger departments) to act as a liaison between retailers and their law enforcement agencies. The National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1976) asserts that dedicating a regular liaison can help facilitate the resolution issues between law enforcement and private security officers. The liaison should not be indiscriminately chosen by the department; rather, careful consideration should be given to the selection of the officer because the success of crime prevention efforts is largely contingent on the skills and abilities of this officer. The officer chosen for the liaison position should have rank within their agency to garner the respect of the heads of security within the retailers.  Furthermore, the officer should have a working knowledge of the private security industry. The liaison must be versed in the laws and regulations surrounding the private security industry, and must be aware of the nuances between contract and proprietary security operations.

The most viable alternative for most departments is to extend community policing efforts to include retailers. Police task forces significantly enhanced the working relationship with store detectives because they gave the perception that the entire department cared about loss prevention efforts. Although designating one officer to act as a community liaison has its benefits, to be completely effective, store detectives need the support of the entire department—including the chief of police. Police departments are highly structured. If a chief of police supports an initiative, his or her officers will follow their directives, and the entire police force will rally behind this effort. Unlike ORC task forces or dedicated liaisons, departments do not have to spend money to build units or remove officers from their regularly scheduled tasks.


This study may not be representative of the entire retail security industry. Obtaining access to corporate security departments proved to be an onerous task. The principal investigator solicited multiple companies to participate in the study; however, many did not return phone calls or declined to participate. Although the principal investigator could have sought out store detectives without obtaining the retailer’s permission, the principal investigator wanted to keep the study above board in the hopes of obtaining a buy-in for future studies. Additionally, each retailer has a different organizational structure for its loss prevention department. Different organizational structures produce different working environments. These inconsistencies would make it difficult to compare responses. Sampling from two large companies allowed for consistency compared to a hodgepodge of different organizational structures. Future researchers who seek to study store detectives should be made aware of how difficult it is to gain access to private corporations. In addition, future researchers may want to seek out different vertical markets to increase the representativeness of their sample.

The retailers who did participate were very concerned about the information being leaked to the public. This concern trickled from the head of security to the store detectives. First, the retailers did not agree to participate in the study unless the principal investigator abided by their terms and conditions. Corporate legal departments placed heavy restrictions on the principal investigator’s data collection method. The retailers would not allow the responses to be electronically recorded; therefore, the principal investigator had to record the interviews by hand. On occasion, taking notes by hand proved to be difficult, especially when the principal investigator temporarily paused the interview to record a quote or phrase. Second, some of the store detectives in Company A were highly skeptical of the principal investigator’s motives. A few store detectives confused the principal investigator with an internal affairs investigator or the news media. To overcome this skepticism, the principal investigator had to engage in an extensive rapport process to convince the store detectives that the study was purely academic and that the principal investigator would ensure the confidentiality of each of their identities. On some occasions, the store detectives agreed to participate in the interview only because the principal investigator was a previous store detective. Researchers who seek to conduct similar research should be aware that gaining access to store detectives is extraordinarily difficult. Moreover, once access is granted, the researcher should be aware that store detectives are highly skeptical of the outside public and may be unwilling to speak with anyone not in the profession. Future researchers may also want to request more efficient data collection procedures. If such permission is not granted, or electronic methods are not available, researchers should devise ways to allow for the most efficient data recording.


This study provided a rare glimpse into the opinions of a security workforce contained within a private organization. The data in this study will surely provide strategies to enhance the relationships between retail security and public law enforcement. The question remains, what does the future look like for those who want to perform similar research? Unfortunately, the outlook of engaging in similar research is bleak. Increasing pressure from e-commerce, persistent government regulation, and the current state of our litigious society makes retailers reluctant to participate in academic research. As time passes, retailers will continue to become more closed off to the general public to protect their images and the interests of their shareholders. This study may be one of the last opportunities to gain insight into the security operations of a retail organization. 


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Ronald Floridia is an Assistant Professor in Administration of Justice with The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He earned his PhD in Criminology from The University of Florida. His research interests include private security and retail loss prevention.

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