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A Times Editorial

Accused and humiliated over $7

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


Clara Woodard is a soft-spoken 55-year-old housekeeper who is proud of her reputation as a trustworthy employee and good citizen. But she says being arrested, handcuffed and jailed after being accused of stealing a $7 umbrella from a St. Petersburg Winn-Dixie has left her scarred.

"That's all she can think about now," said Bette Emory, a longtime employer of Woodard. "It's just had a tremendous effect on her."

Woodard was able to prove her innocence less than 24 hours later via a bank's surveillance camera that showed she had the umbrella prior to her visit to the grocery. She was later cleared of all charges. Woodard says she's relieved but still hurting. "I'm really glad, but that doesn't take back the shame and humiliation and harassment I went through," she told the Times last week.

This demeaning incident could have had a better outcome if Winn-Dixie employees and St. Petersburg police had shown better judgment. No doubt the folks at Winn-Dixie were just doing their jobs when they approached Woodard after she set off an anti-shoplifting device. Woodard offered to take them to her home and show them her umbrella's plastic case. But Winn-Dixie staff gave her no opportunity to prove her innocence. They insisted that the security alarm would not have sounded if she had not stolen the umbrella, though most retailers are advised that these devices are not foolproof.

As for the police, they should have used more discretion, too. At the very least, the officers should have issued Woodard a citation and let her go home. She was no threat to anyone and wouldn't have deserved to be handcuffed in front of her family even if she had been guilty of shoplifting. Even better would have been to take her to her nearby home so she could show them the umbrella's plastic case. Instead, they cuffed her and hauled her off to jail, leaving her great-grandson in tears and her elderly father "trembling all over."

Aside from owing Woodard a fuller and more sincere apology than the grudging one she received from a Winn-Dixie spokesman, officials of the grocery chain and the Police Department need to examine their policies and training.

Maybe Woodard's treatment was an isolated incident that stemmed from a series of honest mistakes. But the officers and store employees involved in the incident, along with leaders of their two organizations, should ask themselves this question: "Would an affluent-looking businessman have been treated with such disrespect?"

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