I Stole a Baby Doll When I Was 3 and Had to Return it. That’s All.

26 September 2019
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My grandmother walked me into the dark, cool Five & Dime in Pendleton, Indiana, and let me roam while she bought some embroidery thread.  The man behind the counter smiled and chatted with me—a little visitor from out of town in 1949. 

Afterwards, we walked to the nearby grocery store, her holding my right hand.  Before we got there, though, she saw a tiny rubber baby doll in my other hand.  “Oh my!  That isn’t yours.”  (It wasn’t?) She told me that we were going right back to the store and that I had to apologize.  She was really angry.

And back we marched. 

She made me return the doll to the counter man.  She insisted I tell him what I had done.  I was so upset and afraid that I might have even mumbled some words, but I don’t remember.  All I remember is her anger and disappointment, and my shame.  And I didn’t get to keep the doll.

Well, that was a long time ago, almost 70 years.  While I remember her anger, I am still puzzled about her sense of shame.  I was a child.  I didn’t know better.  I didn’t understand the free market system or that goods had to be paid for.  But I learned the lesson because she explained that we hadn’t paid for the baby. No one yelled at me or pointed a gun in my grandmother’s face.

Fast-forward 70 years, and in May 2009, multiple units of the Phoenix police responded to a report that a 3-year-old and family drove off with a $1 imitation Barbie doll from the Dollar Tree. You’ve probably seen the video of all those policemen and all those guns and the officer screaming that he could “blow your f***ing face off” if her pregnant mother didn’t somehow keep her hands up in the air while simultaneously opening the car door. https://time.com/5608653/phoenix-police-gun-family-family-dollar-doll/

Can we now all agree that the theft of a rubber doll is not a capital offense, that heavily armed police officers who arrive ready to go to war is sickening? It does not matter the color of the child or who was driving the “get-away” car.  The theft was of a dollar item; the culprit was 3 years old.

The facts of the Phoenix story are messier than mine:  the store manager later reported that she was investigating yet another theft when this one occurred, and the incidents got mixed up on police reports.  And the children’s aunt exited the back seat of the car while the police were in pursuit.  And the father may/may not have admitted to stealing underwear too. 

Meanwhile, Dollar Tree has dropped the theft charges.

Let’s run some numbers.

Money.com estimates that 2018 shoplifting costs to national retail was almost $50 billion, for a start. http://money.com/money/4829684/shoplifting-fraud-retail-survey/  

Today’s Dollar Tree employees make $9.63 an hour, and most have only part-time jobs. www.payscale.com/research/US/Employer=Dollar_Tree_Stores_Inc/Hourly_Rate

Phoenix is more than 1.5 million;  by comparison, Pendleton’s  4,287 citizens are overseen by fewer than a dozen police–minus their chief who was just fired for “insensitive internet posts.”  https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2019/01/24/indiana-town-pendleton-votes-fire-police-chief-marc-farrer-over-facebook-posts/2669739002/ 

Meanwhile, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams oversees more than 3000 officers.  They are forced to deal with the problems of any other major American city.  Those officers have a difficult, dangerous job.  Yet isn’t part of that job is protecting families, not terrorizing them?  Little girls who walk away with a little $1 doll should not have to understand the nuances of the law—but police officers should be trained to. 

I do understand tense, frightened police officers:  my brother was on that same Phoenix police force for over 20 years, and he had to call my mother weekly to reassure her that he was still safe. I appreciate their day-in, day-out challenges;  those officers keep me and my loved ones safe.

However.  Police officers must appreciate their limits and remember that they are not the judge, jury, and executioners—even though, yes, shoplifters cost companies millions.  That does not justify these massive over-reactions. 

Police chiefs like Jeri Williams must retrain their forces, must teach and expect de-escalation.  The “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality has always been morally wrong.  Innocent people are killed.  In the aftermath of these military bombardments, citizens are furious and embittered and don’t want to even be in the same coffee shop with a group of armed policemen.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/07/06/starbucks-barista-asks-police-officers-to-leave-cafe/1663885001/

Seventy years ago, I stole a rubber baby doll and was forced to return it.  I learned a lesson I have never forgotten.  What lesson did the little girl from Phoenix learn?  Shame.  That she was “bad” and that the police almost killed her family because she had been bad.  And worse, in America today, she also learned that the police are bad, too. 

If we don’t wake up and deal with this over-militarization, then we truly will have something to be ashamed of. 

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