Shoplifting recently hit the local and national headlines. Our Police Crime Commissioner, Philip Wilkinson, recently met with shopkeepers in Swindon and heard about the problems that they are experiencing. He stated that there are around ten incidents of shoplifting in Swindon daily.
I am unsure where the PCC gets this figure; however, the daily figure will be higher if he is solely referring to reported incidents. This figure is probably the tip of the iceberg, as many offences go unreported. Factor in the rest of Wiltshire with major shopping areas in our principal towns, then the figure will be much higher. The drain on police resources would be significant.
In my experience, many shoplifters are serial offenders. Indeed, some are members of organised gangs. In these circumstances, homes should be searched for evidence of previous offences and to potentially recover stolen goods. Once suspects have been interviewed, a charging decision can be made. If necessary, a file of evidence with witness statements and a record of the interview is prepared for the Crown Prosecution Service. This all takes time.
Mr Wilkinson gave an undertaking that Wiltshire Police are “determined to deploy the necessary resources to provide the security of our retailers and to stop the shoplifting.” This is a noble sentiment, but stopping shoplifting is a tall order.
The Policing Minister, Chris Philp, spoke about shoplifting at the recent Conservative Party conference. The backdrop to this includes the British Retail Consortium reporting that retail thefts across England and Wales rose by 22% in 2022. In some major cities, there was an increase of 66%. The estimated financial loss is £2.8 billion. The police stand accused of not being interested and failing to take this particular crime seriously.
Mr Philp called for zero tolerance from the police in respect of shoplifting. He is reported as saying, “I would also just remind everyone that the wider public, including shop staff and security guards, do have the power of citizen’s arrest. Where it’s safe to do so I would encourage that to be used, because if you do just let people walk in and take stuff and walk out without proper challenge, including potentially a physical challenge, then it will just escalate. While I want the faster and better police response they can’t be everywhere so I would still think about stores setting that up in some cases.”
I hope Mr Philp has chosen his words carefully and it is worth taking each of his points in turn.
While “citizen’s arrest” is an euphemism, the law does allow for members of the public, including store detectives and security guards, to make arrests in very specific circumstances.
Essentially, you can arrest anyone who is in the act of committing an indictable offence or anyone you have reasonable grounds for suspecting to be committing an indictable offence; theft by shoplifting is an indictable offence.
Mr Philp wisely asserts that such an arrest should only be made if it is safe. A Swindon retailer voiced concerns about being stabbed or injected by drug users. The British Retail Consortium has estimated there are, on average, 850 assaults daily on grocery store workers.
Police officers are trained and equipped to deal with violent offenders. Members of the public are not. We are suffering from an epidemic of knife crime with record numbers of offences. The risks speak for themselves.
Mr Philp recognises the possibility of meeting resistance with a “physical challenge”. The law does allow for the use of ‘reasonable’ force in making an arrest. Determining what is ‘reasonable’ will depend on the circumstances of the incident. The risk you face here is that the use of excessive force could constitute a criminal offence of assault.
Let’s assume you have safely made your arrest. What happens now? Mr Philp conceded that the police “can’t be everywhere”. If there are insufficient officers to respond to shoplifters in the first place, who will come and collect your prisoner?
The Custody Centres in our police area are in Melksham and Swindon; Melksham’s cells are currently closed for refurbishment. Are you going to drive your prisoner to Swindon?
There are no easy answers here. Our Chief Constable has made her three priorities Safer Public Spaces, Violence and Burglary. On the face of it, shoplifting does not sit in any of these three priorities. The retail sector can increase security measures as well as staff. However, the consumer will inevitably bear the cost.
Police recorded crime in England and Wales in the year ending March 2023 exceeded pre-coronavirus pandemic levels. The 6.7 million crimes recorded were 11% higher compared with the year ending March 2020. I do not recall the Prime Minister or Home Secretary making any reference to crime-related matters such as knife crime and violence against women during the Conservative Party conference.
If Mr Philp genuinely wants a “a faster and better police response” to shoplifting, as well as crime in general, give us a properly funded and resourced police service.