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Laptop thefts: Starbucks scandal?

Whose fault is it if your laptop gets stolen at Starbucks? Do coffee shops (and other similar businesses) have a responsibility to help curb such crimes?

Just whose fault is it if your laptop gets stolen at Starbucks? Do coffee shops (and other similar businesses) have a responsibility to help curb such crimes? If so, how far does that responsibility go?

To kick the topic off, here’s a story by Michael Wilson, for the NY Times: As the Careless Order a Latte, Thieves Grab Something to Go

Starbucks shops are ubiquitous in New York, a respite for tourists and professionals young and old, and while the city’s criminal trends come and go and ebb and flow, there remains a steady march of handbags from those shops in someone else’s hands….

Apparently, Starbucks’ customers are pretty common targets. Starbucks, Wilson notes, pop up “again and again on police blotters.” That makes the iconic coffee chain sound like a pretty dangerous hangout. But Wilson rightly acknowledges that the rate of thefts at Starbucks (of which there are 298 in New York alone) needs to be put into context, and compared to the rate of thefts at other establishments:

Not to pick on the chain, based in Seattle. No one has tallied the number of Starbucks thefts, and purses and bags walk out of any number of restaurants and bars day and night. Grand larcenies — the theft of anything over $1,000, which is almost every purse with a credit card inside — remain the Police Department’s most vexing crime, as preventable as it is commonplace.

The focus on how common such crimes are in all kinds of public and semi-public spaces is right on target. To me, this is all reminiscent of the part in the movie, “Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” in which the film-makers — incredibly — blame Walmart for thefts, rapes, and murders that happen in the retailer’s parking lots. It’s a crazy accusation, of course: Walmart has nearly 9000 locations. If you looked at the stats for any 9000 parking lots, I’m willing to bet you’d find a fair bit of crime.

But back to coffee shops, and the rate of laptop and purse theft on their premises. What are companies like Starbucks to do in light of this? Clearly it’s not their fault that people are leaving their laptops unattended — I guess except to the extent that they’ve carefully engineered a warm and welcoming environment, one pretty much designed to encourage people to let their guard down. What might the company do, in principle, to reduce the amount of theft on their premises? Vigilant security guards would be one possibility, though that would surely do something to detract from the Starbucks ambiance. Security cameras are another, less intrusive, option. (But then there might be privacy concerns related to constant surveillance: do you really want the Starbucks-Cam watching over your shoulder while you read The Onion?) They could also install laptop locks on the tables in their shops (since most laptops have a universal lock slot). A different tack would be to eliminate free Wi-Fi, which would give people less reason to bring their laptops to Starbucks in the first place. Of course, lots of us like the free Wi-Fi, but if it’s encouraging us to engage in risky behaviours, I can at least see an argument for hitting the ‘off’ switch.

Warning signs are another option: signs could remind unwary customers of the dangers, and recommend that they carry their laptops with them at all times when on the premises. Apparently, one police commander thought that was a good idea:

[The officer] asked one branch to put up a sign warning customers; the manager demurred, saying such a sign required corporate approval.

But what is Starbucks (or any other coffee shop) obligated to do to reduce crime? Or at least, what would it be ethically-very-good of them to do? I don’t see a clear answer, though it’s easy enough to argue that they ought, at least, to grab some of the ‘low-hanging fruit.’ If there are simple and cheap things they can do to make customers safer, those things could arguably be considered obligatory, and besides, such moves might even attract customers, giving them a genuine sense of security, rather than a false one. But laptop theft at Starbucks will never, never be zero, and it’s unreasonable to think that the company has an obligation to drive the on-site crime rate anywhere near that.