Matthew Scott is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Kent.
If we are going to end the scourge of shoplifting in our high streets, we need a fundamentally different approach. One that bears down on offenders, disrupts organised crime, and ends the cycle of substance misuse that drives so much of it.
Every week there are new stories of the shop theft crisis that retailers are experiencing. Not only are they suffering losses financially, but companies are reporting an increase in violence against their staff. The British Retail Consortium’s Crime Survey has estimated that 450 attacks take place on retail staff every day. One retailer I met last week said that one third of their shoplifting incidents included violence against staff. This is not acceptable.
It is imperative that problems like shoplifting and violence against staff are dealt with robustly. Businesses should not have to suffer the costs of retail crime, and for some, the financial losses could be ruinous. The Association of Convenience Stores has estimated that its members already spend £5,239 per store on prevention measures. They are making the effort to protect their staff, customers, and businesses – so the criminal justice system should support them too.
There are many causes of the increase in shoplifting. The most common is the link to drugs. The Centre for Social Justice’s “Desperate for a Fix” report estimated that as much as 70 per cent of shop theft is driven by heroin and crack cocaine. So at the core of this is a long-term issue that needs to be addressed. For example, Caroline Henry, the PCC in Nottinghamshire, has an Offender to Rehab programme which, in partnership with retailers, is seeing people referred directly to schemes that deal with substance misuse problems. I am about to launch a new study of drugs in policing and criminal justice and propose new approaches that will break the cycle of addiction on crime.
In a recent meeting I attended in Sevenoaks, hosted by local MP Laura Trott, businesses confirmed my long held view that retail theft has become more organised. Whilst I was out on an operation to disrupt shoplifting in Canterbury recently, the team told me that they had just stopped a car involved in a theft from a retailer. All of the occupants were from Northamptonshire. So it is not limited to big cities, but other areas too.
It is important that the organised criminal elements and repeat offenders are being monitored. Kent Police has created a new intelligence platform through which it can track the top 20 perpetrators in each of Kent’s 13 Districts. Across Kent, the Top 20 suspects overall were responsible for 371 known incidents of shoplifting in the last twelve months and had been arrested 285 times. Not only that, they are making sure to track CCTV requests to ensure its collected. This approach is leading to more charges and convictions.
The National collaboration between policing and retailers – Pegasus – will be crucial in improving intelligence on organised retail crime and how they can work together to disrupt these crime groups and bring more offenders to justice.
Kent Police is using other methods to better protect businesses in the long term. One offender recently received a criminal behaviour order alongside their sentence which effectively bans them from many places for five years. This is especially helpful when the sentence is short or suspended.
Partnerships are important for dealing with crimes affecting business too. Through the Home Secretary’s excellent Safer Streets programme I have been working with Business Improvement Districts, Crime Reduction Partnerships, councils, and venues, to boost CCTV and street lighting and make our night-time economy safer. This has made staff feel safer, increased visible police patrols, and reduced crime and antisocial behaviour. I hope to be able to start another Safer Streets programme soon.
We cannot ignore the fact that this increase is occurring at a time when inflation is higher and household budgets are under pressure. There are examples of this being the case and the Police do have the ability to deal with those cases proportionately. But this approach cannot be used if linked to drugs, organised crime, violence against staff, and opportunism.
The solution to this problem does not lie exclusively with policing. The Home Office has been doing some excellent work on tackling re-offending through its tagging scheme. More repeat offenders such as burglars are being tagged on their release from prison and as a result this is having a positive effect on crime numbers. Therefore, this scheme should be extended to more repeat offenders such as those stealing from shops or assaulting shop workers. This way we will be able to help reduce these offences and get justice for more victims.
We need to increase the treatment options for those with substance misuse issues in order to stop the offending from happening. Schemes like Offender to Rehab are excellent examples of how this can be achieved, combining justice with rehabilitation.
Many Police Officers and businesses have raised concerns with me about the damaging impact of viral looting trends we have seen on social media. These platforms must be more proactive in deleting the accounts of those who have been encouraging the looting trends that we have seen in our communities, and co-operate with the authorities to prevent this from happening in the first place. We must ensure that parents and schools are aware of this trend so that young people are not encouraged or pressured into taking part.
We know who, why, and where. We have more Police in Kent than ever before. We now need to join up whole systems to increase police visibility, protect businesses from harm, and bring offenders to justice.