Jan. 14, 2011 — -- Crime among the elderly is on the rise. Some statistics suggest that a geriatric crime wave could be underway. What's certain is that more senior citizens than ever are committing non-violent offenses like shoplifting.
So, "What Would You Do" producers wondered how witnesses would react when they see an elderly shoplifter. Would they be sympathetic to an elderly man or woman, both old enough to be grandparents, caught shoplifting?
We set up our hidden cameras in a family-owned supermarket in Burlington, N.J., outside of Philadelphia. Shoppers come to either load up for the week or just pick up a few items. Most shoppers are looking for the best bargain, but there is one elderly shopper who isn't just searching for the best deal -- he is going for a five-finger discount, hiding products under his raincoat. He is an actor hired by "What Would You Do." Throughout the day at the supermarket "WWYD" receives a variety of reactions to the actor's attempted theft.
At first, most customers don't seem to notice our elderly shoplifter. They are focused on comparing prices and hunting down items. Then shopper Gus Piccotti passes by our shoplifter, and it turns out he is doing a little acting himself. He tells us he'd seen everything our actor was doing, but pretended not to. He knows it is wrong not to report the elderly shoplifter but he felt sorry for the man who is evidently down on his luck. "I didn't want to be a snitch," Gus says.
Pat Miller sees it differently and she confronts the thief directly, saying, "I saw you take something off the shelf and put it under your coat." The shoplifter is unapologetic and he asks for money. Miller flatly refuses, but offers to set him up at a food bank. Our shoplifter isn't interested and tries to escape the supermarket and avoid any interaction with the police. Pat continues to follow him, thwarting his efforts. "Stealing is wrong," she says. "It won't help him if he follows in that path."
While many shoppers have some degree of sympathy for the shoplifter because of his age, few turn a blind eye to the crime. Witness Marlene Hennessey considers letting the shoplifter take an item, believing that he must need it badly, but when the elderly shoplifter stuffs multiple products under his coat Marlene decides enough is enough. She says she had to report him to the manager even if that meant a trip to jail for the old timer.
Then "What Would You Do" wondered what would happen if the shoplifter is a woman who is old enough to be a grandmother. This time a 77-year-old actor does the stealing.
At first, there is a striking difference in the customers' reactions. Lynn Comengo stumbles upon the elderly shoplifter as she is stuffing products under her coat. But instead of reporting the crime, Lynn just walks away. She has no intention of reporting anything she witnessed. "I think maybe if it was a younger kid or somebody, maybe I would have said something." The shoplifter's age seems to matter more than the crime.
As the afternoon wears on the shoplifter gets off the hook less and less. Multiple customers spot the elderly shoplifter and immediately report her to the manager. Many of these customers, like Gayle Gaul, are infuriated by the theft. "It makes me angry to see someone do something like that because my husband works hard and I don't have alot of money. But if I can't afford something, I don't buy it."
Two other customers, Deborah Moore and Diane Still, show little hesitation in their decision to turn in the elderly shoplifter. They are more shocked than angry. For Deborah and Diane, it is a matter of the principal, of right and wrong. "She can't steal. It's wrong."
A crime is a crime but what makes most customers report the elderly shoplifters isn't just stealing, it's that they appear to be greedy -- taking more than observers think is necessary. Few say they can tolerate the sight of someone helping himself or herself to whatever they want. But, at the end of the day, there is one shopper who can't keep herself from looking beyond law and order. Ironically, she is an ex-cop. Cheryl Painter witnesses both the old woman shoplifting and crying as she is getting turned in by other shoppers. Despite those criminal actions, Cheryl feels bad for her and offers to buy the old woman groceries.
"Well, sometimes, people, if they're desperate, they have to eat," Pinter says. "I still wanted to buy her groceries whether she got arrested or not. She still has to eat."