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Our Opinion: One store condones, another condemns post-Florence looters

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A tale of two lootings might start this way: It was the best of responses. It was the worst of responses.

The contrast between break-ins at a Family Dollar store in Wilmington and a family-owned grocery near New Bern in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence couldn’t be clearer.

On Saturday, looters forced open the doors and swarmed the Family Dollar in broad daylight, helping themselves to the discount store’s wares. Later that night, intruders broke into Monette’s, a market in Craven County, under cover of darkness. Both stores were closed during the incidents.

Wilmington’s looters had an audience, as WECT-TV reporter Chelsea Donovan was broadcasting outside. Her colleague manning the camera filmed people hauling trash bags full of merchandise away, their faces obscured by masks and T-shirts pulled taut over their faces. The Monette’s thieves had no one to confront them.

Store owner Jimmy Monette is no easy mark. His brother, Jerry Monette, is Craven County’s longtime sheriff. Monette’s had been crime-free, the owner said, for a quarter-century.

Looters left some physical evidence behind, and Jimmy Monette wants the culprits identified and charged. He also warned that further intrusions won’t be tolerated. Posing outside the store with a revolver in hand, he told WCTI-TV, “There’s a good chance I’ll be in here tonight if they want to come back.”

Hours earlier, visibly aghast WECT anchors reported that the Wilmington Police Department was not responding to Family Dollar because “unfortunately, management has asked (police) not to intervene at this time.”

The looters may have been stealing private property, but their crime created a public disturbance. Officers didn’t need a store employee’s permission to do their jobs. To their credit, Wilmington police made a quick course correction, identifying and arresting five suspects the same day and announcing in a news release “despite initial concerns from the store management, we will charge them to the fullest extent of the law.”

Monette’s sent a message: We’re prepared to use deadly force to defend ourselves and our employees from threats of violence. Crime isn’t welcome here. Thieves will be hunted down and arrested.

Family Dollar sent a message, too: Not only will we do nothing to stop you from stealing, we’ll even ask the cops to look the other way.

Which store is more likely to be victimized the next time around? And can you even call yourself a victim once you’ve become an accomplice?

Looting in the wake of a natural disaster isn’t an act of desperation to be excused or explained away. It had been less than 24 hours since Florence made landfall. No one was dying of hunger or thirst, and relief workers had already begun serving meals and providing shelter for storm survivors. Help was available for those willing to seek it.

While we applaud police for going after the Family Dollar intruders, we’re troubled by their delayed reaction. A lack of law enforcement breeds lawlessness and creates a dangerous environment for individuals and families. If communities say it’s OK to loot a store, emboldened thieves may think it’s fine to ransack your home while they’re at it.

As for Family Dollar, its irresponsible demand made Wilmington less safe. By refusing to prosecute theft, the retail chain encourages rather than deters it. That’s poor corporate citizenship to say the least.

Stores pass the cost of shoplifting along to customers through price markups, so it’s ordinary bargain-hunters, not Family Dollar executives, who will ultimately pick up the tab for those pilfered products in Wilmington.

Last year, U.S. stores reported $46.8 billion in inventory loss, according to the National Retail Federation. Shoplifting and organized retail theft accounted for 35.7 percent of that figure, with employee theft nipping at its heels at 33.2 percent. If more shopkeepers follow the Family Dollar loss prevention playbook, those numbers — and store prices — are certain to rise.

Emergencies can bring out the best in people, as we’ve seen neighbors band together and Good Samaritans risk their lives to rescue stranded souls they’ve never even met. Unfortunately, there are also those who seek to exploit catastrophe for selfish gain.

When that happens, our communities must stand together in opposition, giving no quarter to chaos and criminality. Jimmy Monette understands that. Family Dollar could learn a thing or two from him.