Elizabeth Fiedler was scrolling through Facebook when she came across a post circulating on social media from a Florida police department. The post included a photo of a man who police said stole two boxes of diapers and some wipes from a Walmart.
Fiedler felt an anger rise inside.
Images posted by the Winter Haven Police Department showed the man on Sept. 15 walking through Walmart with two young children, one cradled in his right arm and the other holding his left hand.
At a self-checkout, he tried to use two credit cards to pay for diapers — both were declined, police said. He left the store with the kids at one point but quickly returned on his own and wheeled out the items in a cart without paying, they said.
“So when your card is declined and you try another one with the same result, that is NOT license to just walk out with the items anyway,” police wrote on Facebook on Sept. 18 in the post, which featured a photo of the man with the children. The kids’ faces had been blocked out with smile emoji.
“Poor little kids had no idea,” police said in the post, later adding: “He was seen entering a white SUV, possibly a Chevy TrailBlazer. Anyone recognize him?”
Fiedler, who is 16 and lives in Johnson County, Kan., said she felt sadness for the man in the photo and decided to leave a comment on Facebook.
“Doubt I will get a response, but I will pay for these items as long as you leave this man alone,” she wrote that same day.
Her comment was soon liked by more than 4,000 people. Fiedler wasn’t alone in her outrage.
The post was shared several thousand times, and more than 4,500 people weighed in, saying they were offended and upset by the police notice. Facebook users across the United States, and even other countries, commented that they wanted to help the man and his children.
“I’m very supportive of police in general, but this is just cold and heartless,” commented a man from Jacksonville, Fla.
“The man is trying hard to care for his children. Have some compassion,” wrote a woman from New York.
“I am so disappointed in this post. I’ll pay for his diapers. I’m not saying it was right but seriously. I’m sorry guy for the embarrassment and sorry for the person who felt the need to post this,” another wrote.
Fiedler said she felt moved to post a comment because almost everyone she knows is struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Lower-income people are especially feeling the effects,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “No one wants to be poor. No one should ever feel the need to steal out of necessity in one of the world’s richest countries.”
“Many people are upset with the police department [but] Walmart is the victim and they asked us to file the report and they want to press charges,” wrote Jamie Brown, public information officer for the Winter Haven police. “We are obligated to move forward.”
“When this occurs and we don’t have a suspect name, we utilize social media to seek out the public’s help,” she added. “This has always been a very good tool in identifying those who commit crimes. This case is no different.”
The comments by social media users continued to roll in for almost a week, as many people strongly disagreed.
“The world we live in is hard,” said Brooke Brennan, 34, a college student and mother of four from Fort Lee in Virginia. She asked that the Winter Haven Police Department send her a bill for the diapers and said she would gladly pay it.
“People are out of work, losing family and friends and dying,” Brennan said. “I can’t fix the world, but I can show compassion to those having a tougher time than myself.”
“My first reaction to the photos was not that the man pictured was a thief [but] rather a father facing an impossible decision to either break the law or not have basic necessities for his kids,” she added.
Marshall Welch, a 34-year-old hotel manager from Auburndale, Fla., said he was disappointed that the Winter Haven police shared the dad’s embarrassing situation on social media.
“I don’t disagree that he broke the law,” Welch said. “What I disagree with was out of all the cases they get from Walmart, why did they choose to blast a father trying to provide for his children after many attempts to pay for the items?”
Walmart did not respond to a request from The Washington Post for comment. But after somebody recognized the man’s photo on Facebook and called police, the retailer signed a waiver of prosecution with the Winter Haven Police Department, meaning charges won’t be filed, Brown said in a second statement, issued Sept. 23.
“We made contact with the man and explained to him that Walmart is not going to press charges,” she said. “We also provided a host of local organizations that are available to help.”
Brown thanked everyone on Facebook who had reached out with concern for a man they didn’t know.
“We let him know of the many people wanting to help him and his family,” she said.
Crystal Maddox, a real estate agent from Lakeland, Fla., said she was relieved to learn that the man wouldn’t be charged.
“As a parent, I sympathized with the gentleman because there is no greater hurt than needing something for your child and not having the ability to obtain it,” said Maddox, 38. “In a time when things are already difficult for the family, piling on criminal charges would surely make matters worse.”
“Prayers were answered for the fact that they declined to prosecute,” she said. “I’m very grateful for that.”