Shoplifters who commit repeat offences face jail with retail crime ‘spiralling out of control’

With the Co-op warning that retail crime is “spiralling out of control”, it is understood the Government is planning to introduce mandatory prison sentences for repeat offenders.

Aug 1, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Picture: Federation of Independent Retailers

Latest figured from the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) show almost two-thirds of crime being driven by repeat and prolific offenders.

According to The Times newspaper, the Government now plans to force judges to impose jail terms when sentencing repeat offenders for shoplifting, burglary, theft and common assault, using new legislation to be included in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.

Currently, these offences do not necessarily result in a prison sentence, the way that two convictions for knife crime automatically do. The number of offences required for a prison sentence would vary according to the type of crime, according to The Times.

The Co-op says criminals have ‘freedom to loot’ with “rampant levels of out-of-control crime” predominantly committed by repeat and prolific offenders, with drug or alcohol addictions and, local organised criminal gangs, among the main drivers of offending.

The company has seen crime, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour jump 35 per cent year-on-year, with more than 175,000 incidents recorded in the first six months of this year – almost 1,000 every day.

With one inner city London store ‘looted’ three times in a single day, the Co-op warns that this level of out-of-control crime is unsustainable and could even see some communities become a no-go area for local stores.

The convenience retailer is calling on all police forces and crime commissioners (PCCs) to target prolific offenders and local organised criminal gangs to reverse the existing environment in many cities where they operate without fear of being caught or charged.

A Freedom of Information request by the Co-op highlighted that police failed to respond in 71 per cent of serious retail crimes reported. With some, according to their own data, not responding to nine in ten serious incidents reported.

With crime often the flashpoint for attacks, assault, abuse and anti-social behaviour, the Co-op also revealed that frontline store workers had seen physical assaults increase year-on-year by almost one-third (30 per cent) and, anti-social behaviour and verbal abuse rising by a fifth (20 per cent).

Matt Hood, Co-op Food managing director, said: “We know retail crime is driven by repeat and prolific offenders and, organised criminal gangs.

“It is an ongoing challenge for all retailers, and in the worst instances can even be described as ‘looting’.

“I have seen some horrific incidents of brazen and violent theft in our stores, where my store colleagues feel scared and threatened. I see first-hand how this criminal behaviour also erodes the very fabric of our communities – it’s hard to over-emphasise how important urgent change is.

“Co-op has invested significantly in keeping colleagues and stores safe, but we need the police to play their part. Too often, forces fail to respond to desperate calls by our store teams, and criminals are operating in communities without any fear of consequences.”

The ACS 2023 Crime Report estimates that there were more than 1.1 million incidents of theft reported last year.

The most commonly stolen items as reported by retailers were meat, alcohol and confectionery – typically high value items that can then be sold on by those with a drug or alcohol addiction, or part of wider organised crime groups.

Findings from the 2023 Crime Report show that the theft index has reached new record levels. The record was previously broken last quarter after standing for more than ten years.

The report found that 79 per cent of retailers believe that the cost of living crisis has led to an increase in theft, while 87 per cent of staff working in convenience stores had experienced verbal abuse over the past year.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “Our members are at the sharp end, seeing crime in their communities get steadily worse.

“Shop theft is rising because repeat offenders and organised criminals are targeting local shops to steal goods to resell. This organised criminal activity exploits vulnerable people by getting them to steal to order in exchange for their next fix, funds the illegal drug trade, and harms businesses that provide essential services to communities.

“The police have to face up to theft, violence and anti-social behaviour in and around local shops. Cracking down on the criminals who account for the majority of this crime against our members would be the most effective way to make our communities safer.”

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary said: “Evidence is mounting that retail crime is on the increase; added to this Co-op report is a 24 per cent uplift in official police recorded incidents of shoplifting.

“This is very concerning for our members in retail, because shoplifting is not a victimless crime. Theft from shops has long been a major flashpoint for violence and abuse against shopworkers and, as the Co-op rightly says, it is often linked to organised crime gangs.

“Having to deal with repeated and persistent shoplifters can cause issues beyond the theft itself like anxiety, fear and in some cases physical harm to retail workers.

“There must be better coordination to ensure that government, retail employers, police and the courts work together to help protect shopworkers, giving them the respect they deserve.”

According to another report in The Times, more police resources and time are to be dedicated to tackle reported offences, including shoplifting, where there is a ‘reasonable lead’, such as CCTV footage or eyewitness accounts.

The Co-op already works closely with a number of forces, including Nottinghamshire Police, which has been effective in tackling persistent and prolific offenders.

In Nottinghamshire this year, 17 prolific offenders have been removed off the streets, with a combined 5.6 years of custodial sentences, and a further 13 repeat offenders given a Criminal Behaviour Order or rehabilitation.

Inspector Oliver Vale of Nottinghamshire Police commented: “The collaborative work that has taken place between Nottinghamshire Police and our partners in Co-op, Mitie and NBCS has provided us with a fantastic opportunity to identify those not only committing the most harm in our retail communities but to our communities as a whole.

“Retail crime is something we recognise within Nottinghamshire Police as being an issue that needs to be proactively tackled but we cannot do this alone and the information sharing model that Op Synergy has developed has allowed for us to collaboratively secure significant convictions and prohibitive orders on some of our most prolific retail offenders by working with the Co-op.”

Co-op has invested more than £200 million in recent years in colleague and community safety to counter criminal behaviour – per store this equates to four times the average sector spend on security and safety measures.

The company uses a wide range of targeted measures to deter criminal behaviour. This includes interactive and remote monitored CCTV; body-worn cameras; communication headsets for frontline colleagues; covert and non-covert guarding and security; Smartwater; GPS tracked security cases and, ‘dummy’ packaging on shelves – which the Co-op believes will only become a more prevalent and familiar sight in retailing.

The convenience retailer also successfully campaigned for stricter sentencing in law for violent incident against retail workers through its Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign – with the new law introduced in Scotland in August 2021, and England and Wales the following May.

However, retailers estimate that just 16 per of crimes against their business are reported to the police, according to the ACS 2023 Crime Report.

Sussex PCC Katy Bourne says this “undermines the best efforts of police and retailers” to tackle crime.

“Shoplifting, abuse and assaults still plague our retailers and their long-suffering staff,” she said.

“The impact of crime leads to frightened shopworkers and intimidated customers.

“Accepting that loss and violence is the price of doing business and not reporting incidents, undermines the best efforts of police and retailers who are trying to turn the tide.

“I urge any business experiencing crime to contact their local police for advice on reporting incidents.”

ACS has published a five-point plan for police forces and the Government to do more to take retail crime seriously and support local businesses. This includes:

  • Introduce a ‘Most Wanted’ list of shop thieves in each police force area, where prolific offenders can be banned from retail areas or referred to rehabilitation programmes;
  • Review the impact of new legislation that makes attacking a public facing worker (including shop staff) an aggravated offence;
  • Invest in rehabilitation programmes for offenders to break the cycle of offending and ineffective punishment;
  • Encourage local forces to use the tools available to them to deal with anti-social behaviour, such as the Community Trigger and Community Remedy powers; and
  • Incentivise investment in crime prevention measures.

The national president of the Federation of Independent Retailers (the Fed), Muntazir Dipoti, said: “Shop theft is not victimless. It blights the lives of independent retailers on a daily basis and has significant implications for a store’s viability.

“I am sure that every member has been affected by shop theft at some point and, sadly, many incidents of shoplifting are becoming increasingly violent.”

Responding to the report that police will pledge to act on all crimes, he added: “After so many years of police forces appearing to turn a blind eye to shoplifting offences, the Fed is pleased to hear that these crimes will be investigated, provided there is evidence available to help lead to a conviction.

“However, we are interested in action and not just words, so the Fed will be writing to chief constables and police and crime commissioners to ensure that officers do act when cases of shop theft are reported.”

Latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that incidents of shoplifting increased by a quarter (24 per cent) in England and Wales in the year to March 2023.

However, Mr Dipoti said that as many retailers failed to report shop theft because of poor police responses, the scale of the problem could be much worse.

“Retailers are disillusioned by the lack of police action when crimes are committed so they do not report them. It is, therefore, possible that the number of cases of shop theft over this period could be even higher,” he said.

Just recently, the Fed called for government grants to help independent retailers to beef up their security systems.

Mr Dipoti said: “Tackling shop theft has to be given the energy and priority it deserves from the police and the justice system and independent retailers should be given financial support so they can invest in better-quality CCTV to protect them, their staff and their businesses.”

In response to the news that the Government are planning to introduce mandatory prison sentences for repeat shoplifting, Pavan Dhaliwal, chief executive of the charity Revolving Doors, commented: “It is remarkably short-sighted, to say the least, that the Government’s proposed solution to low-level crimes driven primarily by poverty lies in sending even more people to already chronically overcrowded prisons.

“Evidence has long shown that short prison sentences not only fail to address the root causes of criminal behaviour but rather exacerbate these drivers at huge cost to the individual and their families, as well as the public purse – sending someone to prison for a year costs almost £47,000 a year.

“Locking up individuals for shoplifting in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis simply ignores the underlying problems which are forcing some individuals to make desperate choices to survive.

“Instead, we should prioritise addressing the root causes of the crime, namely poverty, by investing in education, skills training, and employment opportunities to empower those at risk of engaging in criminal activities. Put simply, people need to be diverted to services to be supported, not processed through a justice system already on its knees.”

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