More than nine customers and workers at a T.J. Maxx store in Oak Park Heights were sprayed with a chemical irritant by a fleeing shoplifter Wednesday night, but store officials didn’t report it and initially refused to cooperate with police investigators, including offering surveillance recordings of the incident.
By Friday afternoon, however, the surveillance recording was turned over to police, the company said in a statement.
“At T.J. Maxx, the safety of our customers and associates is always a top priority. It is our longstanding practice to cooperate with law enforcement,” said Doreen Thompson, vice president of corporate communications for TJX Cos. Inc., parent firm of T.J. Maxx based in Framingham, Mass. “We have protocols in place that stores need to follow when certain types of incidents occur, and our store followed those protocols before releasing our video surveillance footage.
“While it took a bit longer than we would have liked, at this time, we have provided the video footage to local police for their investigation. As this is a police matter, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”
On Wednesday, police were only notified a half-hour later by a sickened customer being treated with her daughter at a nearby hospital emergency room. They were told that similar incidents have been happening at other T.J. Maxx stores, and that the company is doing its own investigation “in hopes of putting together a large case,” said Brian DeRosier, Oak Park Heights police chief and emergency manager.
DeRosier said he has no problem with stores keeping law enforcement officers out of the loop over an everyday shoplifting incident, but when people are doused with an unknown chemical in a public place and it goes unreported, that’s a different story.
“I’m not about to comment on whether or not what they did was legal or not legal,” he said. “It’s not a smart idea, let’s just leave it at that.”
DeRosier added that the store’s prior knowledge of this type of incident at other stores “would be even more reason to call for assistance and provide a description at that time.” He called the store’s failure to provide information that could lead to the arrest of a suspect, and possibly prevent similar incidents elsewhere, “an unprofessional and irresponsible response by the retailer” that exposes customers to further danger.
According to the police report, officers went to the store at 8:10 p.m. Wednesday responding to the customer’s report of a “chemical release.” Nine people at the store were still suffering the effects of what police believed to be mace or pepper spray: sneezing, coughing and irritation. Nobody was seriously injured.
The Oak Park Heights Fire Department was called to ventilate the building in the 5800 block of Krueger Lane. No residue of the substance was found when the area was tested.
Police were told that a male believed to have stolen something from the store took a container from his waist as he was leaving and turned to spray it inside the store as he fled, the report says. The store manager told police that the surveillance video was to be forwarded to the company’s district security office on Thursday. When police contacted Sherry Hiltner, the company’s district loss prevention manager, she had refused to share the video or any other information about the incident, saying the company was doing its own investigation.