A York police officer who went to arrest a man for shoplifting shoes ended up giving him shoes and clothes.
Lt. Keith Wills was standing in the dispatch room earlier this month when a shoplifting call came in from Walmart on East Liberty Street.
“‘We think we’ll have somebody stealing some shoes,’” Wills recalled the caller saying. “Then they went on and said, ‘No, never mind. He’s headed to the register; we don’t need you.’”
Wills, a 16-year law enforcement veteran, headed to the store anyway, and found the suspect inside near the self checkout. He was wearing basketball shorts, a sweatshirt and brand new shoes.
The 49-year-old suspect had taken a new pair of shoes from their box and put in their place a pair of slippers commonly worn by jail inmates, according to the police report. He hid the box in another part of the store, and initially told Wills he wasn’t planning to steal the shoes.
The man, who had just been released after six months in jail, told Wills he needed to walk to Clover “and needed the shoes,” the report states. He was arrested for shoplifting, and complied with police.
“His family had changed all their phone numbers or disconnected them,” Wills said. “He didn’t have nobody to call and come pick him up, nothing. So, he just walked away from the jail with nothing but his paperwork, a sweatshirt, boxer shorts and a pair of those jail flip flops.”
The man told officers he was “having a conflict” about stealing the shoes as he walked toward the front of the store, Wills said.
“He’s technically already shoplifted,” he said, “but he’s stuck between leaving and getting in trouble and maybe deciding to take them back.”
The police report ends with the shoes being returned to Walmart and the suspect released on a summons to appear in court. But Wills decided to give him more than just a summons. Wills’ wife leads a homeless outreach effort at their church, and he gave her a call.
“The more I talked to him, the more I realized the man was just in a tough spot,” Wills said. “I called my wife and said, ‘Can you put one of your kits together?’”
Wills’ wife met him and the man with no shoes in the parking lot of the police department and gave the man a backpack that contained jeans, a pair of tennis shoes, a blanket and hygiene products.
The man seemed delighted and thankful for the items, Wills said, but he was also skeptical and confused.
“I think he just stood there for a minute like, he’s gonna lock me up for this,” Wills said. “I was gonna check with him to give him a ride to Clover. I went inside to do something and he was already gone, like a ghost.”
The man, who was in jail for failure to stop for blue lights and driving under suspension, no longer lives at the Clover address listed on the incident report.
Chief Andy Robinson said he’s encouraged community policing among his officer since becoming chief, and that the officers have embraced not only the concept but also the impact it has on the community. Recently, he’s received messages about an officer who bought gift cards for three young girls at McDonald’s just because they were excited to meet a real cop, and another officer who took a few minutes to toss a football around with two boys, which a passerby recorded on video.
“I like for them to come up with the ideas because they get more involved in things they suggest rather than just telling them to do X, Y or Z,” Robinson said. “I have told my officers that there is more to policing than making arrests and writing tickets.”
Wills said his pastor instructs the congregation to help someone if they “have a feeling” about them, and that he had that feeling about this shoplifting suspect.
“He says that’s God telling you to do something,” Wills said. “I was very humbled by the fact that a pair of jeans and a pair of shoes could make somebody so happy.”
Wills said officers aren’t seeking attention with these kinds of acts, but he smiles at a short story about his encounter on the law enforcement Facebook page “South Carolina Going Blue.” At one point last week the story, which doesn’t name Wills but refers simply to a York police officer, had 1,900 likes, 900 shares and had reached 85,000 people.
“If this touches one person, that’s awesome,” he said. “If these 85,000 people read this story and each one of them helps one person, do you know how many people would get help?”