Kenneth Martin, a field training officer for the Fort Smith Police Department in Arkansas, was at Walmart buying footballs and basketballs to donate to his town’s Toys for Tots program when the call came in on his radio.
A man and woman had been detained for attempting to shoplift groceries from the same store Martin was shopping in on Fort Smith’s Zero Street.
Martin, 50, walked to the front of the store that day, Nov. 30, and was saddened by what he saw.
A nervous young couple was talking to a store loss-prevention agent as their two little girls watched from a shopping cart. The children appeared to be about 2 and 4 years old, he said. They watched quietly as the security employee told Martin that the couple hadn’t scanned about half of the items they’d bagged at the self-checkout, including canned goods, pasta, ground beef, and a teddy bear.
After the employee said that the store had decided to press shoplifting charges against the man, but not his wife, Martin carried the allegedly stolen items to the customer service desk.
His body cam was rolling. The video, which has been shared all over the internet since it was posted earlier in January by a Fort Smith city employee, shows what happened next:
“Ring it all up again so I can pay for it,” Martin is heard telling two customer service clerks. “They’re stealing food, and they’ve got kids. I have to take him to jail, but I don’t have to make the kids think I’m [a jerk].”
The video then shows Martin returning $30 worth of groceries and the teddy bear to the woman, telling her, “I took care of these for you, OK? I understand this is food and things that you need, but if y’all need help, ask for help, OK? Don’t do this, not with babies.”
Later, as he drove the arrested man to jail in his patrol car, Martin told him something similar, he said in an interview with the Washington Post.
“I felt bad for the guy and told him, ‘Look, I understand what you’re doing, but you guys need to go about this in a different way,’ ” Martin recalled. “I told him that if the store had decided to prosecute both of them, child protective services would have been called, and there would be nothing I could do about it.”
Martin, who has worked in law enforcement for 16 years, is softhearted by nature, according to those he works with.
“Officer Martin realizes that everyone has their own struggles in life,” said Aric Mitchell, a public information officer for the Fort Smith Police Department. “He doesn’t ever really count anybody out.”
It's a lesson Martin said he's taken to heart because he's been there.
“I’ve been a young parent, wondering where I was going to stretch that nickel to,” he said. “And when I was growing up, I learned that when a mom and dad don’t have the means, you don’t let the kids suffer.
“If I see somebody down on their luck, I’ll try to help them however I can, and I’m not the only one,” he added. “There are thousands and thousands of officers who do the same thing every day and never get any recognition for it.”
Martin was recognized for his kindness because an off-duty police officer shopping at the same Walmart that day learned what had happened and later nominated him for the police department’s January employee of the month.
“Field Training Officer Martin is a wonderful example of what we all strive for,” the anonymous officer wrote. “Let’s use his example of kindness to treat each other better in 2020.”
Although Martin is somewhat bewildered by the praise, he said that’s an initiative he’ll proudly stand behind.