Shoplifting gangs ‘escape justice’ as police won’t attend when thieves flee

Police officers detain a man near Oxford Street in central London
Police officers detain a man near Oxford Street in central London - Aaron Chown/PA

Violent shoplifting gangs are escaping justice because police are not attending crime scenes if offenders have fled, shop owners have warned.

‌In an open letter to police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, independent retailers have called on forces to reassure workers by proactively investigating all reports of intimidation and assault.

‌The group described shoplifting as the “primary trigger for violence and abuse of shopworkers” and said the vast majority of crimes were committed by prolific offenders or organised gangs.

‌Over the past year, shop staff have reported being threatened with screwdrivers, being spat on, being kicked and being confronted with weapons after accusing people of shoplifting.

‌Others said they have had bottles of wine poured over their heads and had been hit with walking sticks.

The call for action comes after reports of record levels of shoplifting and allegations of organised looting.

‌The open letter, which has been signed by seven major organisations representing retailers, said shops were facing “unprecedented levels of theft” and “organised looting of their businesses on a regular basis”.

‌The letter continued: “We often see scenarios where violence against shopworkers is not responded to by the police because incidents do not meet forces’ threat, harm and risk criteria as offenders have left the premises after committing an offence.

‌“In the vast majority, if not all, of retail businesses there will be CCTV footage available to support police lines of inquiry into violent incidents.

‌“Therefore, we would like to see the proactive collection of evidence prioritised by police forces.”

‌The letter has been signed by the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the British Independent Retail Association (BIRA), the Federation of Small Businesses, the Federation of Independent Retailers (FIR) and shopworkers’ union Usdaw.

‌The group is calling for police to prioritise on the ground evidence gathering related to violent attacks.

‌They also want police forces to make it easier for retailers to report crime and submit evidence as well as prioritising identifying prolific offenders who are behind most of the thefts and anti-social behaviour.

‌The BRC has estimated that theft is costing retailers nearly £1 billion per year, while the ACS says 90 per cent of workers have experienced verbal abuse in that period.

‌A survey published by Usdaw earlier this year of 7,755 shopworkers found 74 per cent were verbally abused in 2022 while 49 per cent had been threatened. Almost eight per cent said they had been physically assaulted.

‌Andrew Goodacre, CEO of BIRA, said that he had seen a “real loss of confidence” from shopworkers over the likelihood of a police response.

“If we can’t tackle this issue then either everything in a shop will end up behind a counter, or in secure packaging and prices will rise because stock costs money”, he added.

Members of FIR and BIRA have previously called on the Government to provide funds to help them cope with rising crime levels.

The trade groups have written to Chris Philp, the policing minister, for a £1,500 government grant per retailer to help “beef up” security systems amid the shoplifting epidemic.

Katy Bourne, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners’ lead for business and retail crime and Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex, a force praised in the letter for its response to the crime wave, said she had seen for herself the fear, the harm and the damage that too many shop staff and retailers are experiencing.

She added: “I’d also like to see prolific shoplifters monitored with electronic tags, as happens with persistent domestic abuse perpetrators and burglars, so I’ll be raising this with ministers and officials.

“If we want to retain our villages and high streets and shopping malls as pleasant places to shop and visit we have to be more proactive, more imaginative and more robust. We can’t retreat and give up or our stores will close up.”

‌The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for acquisitive Crime, Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman, said forces take any incident of violence “incredibly seriously, and will prioritise our response where there is a risk to individuals”.

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