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With jurisdictional change and new management, arrests at the U-Store on the rise

A copy of the summons issued against a University student for allegedly stealing grapes from the U-Store

A copy of the summons issued against a University student for allegedly stealing grapes from the U-Store

The U-Store appears to be cracking down on thefts at the store, leading to several arrests of both students and town residents in the last few months.

James Sykes, President of the U-Store, said the increase in arrests is the result of new management, which took over in July. Sykes said that at the beginning of his term, the new manager focused on other aspects of the store, and has only recently shifted his focus to loss prevention.

The U-Store is a nonprofit organization that functions as a co-op, meaning it is owned fully by its members, who receive a 10 percent discount on all merchandise. Because of this, Sykes said, theft becomes more serious.

“At the end of the day, if someone steals from the U-Store, they’re really stealing from everybody else that’s an owner. So theoretically, they’re stealing from other students or alums or someone that’s become a U-Store member over the years.”

About $100,000 worth of merchandise is lost at the U-Store every year in internal and external thefts, Sykes said. The U-Store makes about $8 million worth of sales annually.

These extra security measures also come at a time when police jurisdiction over the U-Store has shifted. The U-Store is now under the jurisdiction of the University’s Department of Public Safety, rather than the local Princeton Police Department, following an agreement of operating procedures signed in May 2013. Most details of the agreement have not been released to the public.

DPS, which has a stronger presence on campus, has been actively investigating accidents in the U-Store, including charging students for alleged thefts of grapes and sushi. 

Sykes said that many thefts are of food, particularly in cases involving University students. Nonstudents, Sykes said, tend to steal high-value items such as headphones. The U-Store has previously dealt with rings of thieves, who would steal things like computers, DVDs and CDs, Sykes said, and then resell them at Saturday swap meets. Sykes also said employee theft can be a problem, primarily with temporary employees.

DPS has, in the past, not charged students for shoplifting, instead sending the students through the internal University disciplinary system, where records are not public.

The U-Store primarily uses associates’ observations and an installed camera system to identify thefts, Sykes said. If managers suspect that a theft may have occurred, they will often go back and review the tapes, and, if an issue is identified, will work with the Department of Public Safety.

Sykes said the change in jurisdiction has not had any negative impact on the way DPS identifies crimes at the U-Store.

“It’s really transparent; they respond very quickly,” Sykes said, referring to DPS. “They’re on campus anyway a lot of times. Our people are interacting with them; they’re coming in for a variety of reasons, so it really hasn’t been a negative at all. It just really is a different process.”

Earlier last month, Ernst Delma, 30, of Princeton, was arrested and charged with defiant trespass in front of the U-Store. He was also issued a persona non grata, in addition to a previous persona non grata that was still in effect. The arrest was made solely by Department of Public Safety officers, although one Princeton Police car was also at the scene.

A Package of Sushi and Four or Five Grapes

In separate cases, two students were charged with shoplifting by DPS last month following alleged incidents at the U-Store. The students, whose cases were included in the University’s daily crime log, were granted anonymity as their charges are pending dismissal following community service.

Both students were arrested several days after their alleged thefts, rather than at the scene. Both also received the following email from DPS:

“I’m conducting an investigation and would like to speak with you. Please contact me at your earliest convenience to schedule a time to meet.”

The first student, who allegedly stole a pack of sushi from the U-Store on March 6, said she was with a friend who had done the same thing, but only the second student’s U-Store membership card was used. The student said she believes this is how they were able to identify her. She was charged with shoplifting, or “purposefully taking possession of any merchandise … specifically by opening packages of prepared food and consuming the food while in the store and not making payment,” according to a court summons issued against the student.

She got the email from DPS about a week later, noting that her friend, the second student, had already been called, so she was not shocked.

“It was pretty clear that they were going to send me to the municipal court no matter what,” the student said in an interview. During her meeting with a detective from DPS, she was told that the U-Store was tracking theft more carefully, due to heavy losses of revenue.

“She said … they were cracking down and sending everyone to court and letting them deal with it,” the student said. She had her mugshot taken and was placed in a “holding cell” — an unlocked room. Once she obtained a lawyer, she said, his first priority was reaching a deal with the prosecutor.

“It was a really, really traumatizing experience. It just ruined a lot of time for me,” the student said.

The official complaint for the second student who allegedly stole from the U-Store on March 28 reads, “eating from a container of packaged grapes that were not paid for.” She was charged with a different charge of shoplifting: “causing to be carried away or transferred merchandise … by converting the merchandise to her/his own use without paying the Princeton University Store the full retail value thereof.”

“As I was walking around, I guess I — what I would do with my parents when I was a little kid — I started eating the grapes … and I ate, probably, four or five grapes,” the student said in an interview. “Then, five or 10 minutes later, [we] were ready to check out, and I thought about it, I was like, ‘I don’t think I want both these packages of grapes,’ so I took one out at random — I don’t know if it was, honestly, the package of grapes that I had been eating from or not … I put it back, and I bought the rest of the stuff.” She also believes her name was obtained using her membership card, which she used to purchase the rest of the items.

A few days later, she received the same email from DPS as the other student got, but was not sure what it was about.

“This was the last thing that I thought they would [be asking about]. It didn’t even cross my mind until they literally told me,” she said. She said the detectives agreed with her that the charges were “ridiculous,” but that they were under direction from the U-Store, which had decided to crack down on thefts.

“It was very traumatizing,” the student said. “It’s horrible to go through that and be treated like that.”

Both students and their lawyers have reached agreements with the prosecutor under which they will perform community service until their next court date, at which point their charges will be dismissed.

Neither student has bought anything from the U-Store since.

“It’s a little weird to me that they’re using the University to nab people,” the student who allegedly stole sushi said.

“What was the most upsetting for me was being treated like [a criminal] for literally eating a couple of grapes that they couldn’t put a monetary value on,” the other student said. “It’s people like us that are getting caught, because we’re not thinking about it; we’re not trying to hide.”

“It sounds like this is very innocent. It’s a few people, they eat a little food, why does it matter?” Sykes said. “Well, we can’t really create a lot of distinction between one kind of theft and another. Someone steals and it’s a big enough problem for us overall. We have to have a policy that fits everyone; we can’t discriminate.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the name of Ernst Delma. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error. 

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