MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - It never occurred to Phillip Harris. Not once. Even though it's the 21st century.
The 49-year-old career criminal with more than 80 arrests on his rap sheet thought he'd swipe about a grand's worth of over-the-counter medication from Kroger, 1366 Poplar Avenue, and walk out with a smart aleck grin on his face.
He had no clue that grin and the grip he had on those medicine bottles were all caught on camera in one of the Mid-South's most sophisticated retail crime-fighting networks: the Kroger/Shelby County Sheriff's ALERT crime-fighting network.
"We act in a support role with law enforcement and with prosecutors in furnishing them with everything they need to build cases on (retail thieves)," said Donny Blackwell, organized retail crime investigator for Kroger's Delta Division.
From a secret Memphis hideaway, Blackwell and his loss prevention investigators -- some disguised as Kroger managers or floor workers -- can track every camera, every customer in real time at the Delta Division's 108 stores in five states. "We have anywhere from 40 to 60 cameras in every store," Blackwell said. "If you're stealing something in a Kroger, you will be on camera, and you will be caught. We do it every day."
Just like the day WMC Action News 5 was tagging along in that hide-out as Blackwell and his buddies watched Harris clothesline a shelf of over-the-counter meds into a hand basket at that Kroger in Crosstown. 60 cameras tracked his every move. He walked over to the soft drink aisle, removed the bottles and alarm sensors from the boxes.
Then after he tossed the boxes on the shelves with the soda, he stuffed the medicine bottles in his pockets -- his shirt, jacket, pants, wherever he had space. Kroger's cameras captured Harris taking between $700 and $1,000 of medicine over three visits.
The cameras also captured that grin as Harris walked right out of the exit.
Here's where the partnership wipes that grin right off his face.
Kroger collected the footage and transferred it to detectives at the Shelby County Sheriff's ALERT unit (Area Law Enforcement & Retail Team). ALERT shared the video and stills on its encrypted network to more than 5,000 police agencies and retailers nationwide. The unit also posted the leads on the Shelby County Sheriff's Facebook page. "It might be from a Facebook tip. It might be from our website, (but) once we put a suspect on that site, even if we don't know who they are, their days are numbered," Sgt. David Ballard, Shelby County Sheriff ALERT detective, said.
Within days, tips have helped them identify Harris and his lengthy record: prostitution near a school, cocaine possession, theft of property. ALERT and Kroger's undercover investigators hit the streets, tracking Harris to within a block of the Crosstown Kroger. In no time, Harris is found and escorted to a holding room inside the sheriff's general investigations bureau at 201 Poplar Avenue.
60 cameras and an elite retail/law enforcement partnership turned Harris's grin upside down.
"I don't know about no cameras," Harris told us on camera, like someone unaware of the moon landing or automatic dishwashers. "I don't want to talk about it." We asked him if he planned to sell all those bottles of medicine. He simply answered "No" as he disappeared behind an interview room door.
According to Kendall Neal of the Regional Organized Crime Information Center (ROCIC) in Nashville, between the two-year periods 2008-10 and 2011-13, retail theft cases increased 2.3 percent statewide in Tennessee. But between those same periods, in areas of Tennessee with crime-fighting partnerships like the Kroger/Shelby County Sheriff ALERT team, retail theft dropped an average of nearly eight percent.