The peaceful village of Brewood in Staffordshire seems an unlikely spot for shoplifting and anti-social behaviour.

However, according to Hazel Dearn, manager of the Spar store, looks can be deceptive. “Crime can happen anywhere,” she says. “This is a nice area, but there are always kids who are looking to try something - especially if they’re in a group with older kids egging them on.”

Her method of dealing with the younger criminal contingent is ‘firm but fair’. “It’s important that you don’t lose your temper with them - that won’t do anything to help the situation.”

Instead, she urges her staff to take a sensible approach. “With the younger kids who try to shoplift, I always tell my staff to put themselves in their place,” says Hazel. “I have children myself so I know what they’re like. Most kids have tried to shoplift at some stage, but it’s how you deal with it that stops it from going any further.

“It’s best if you try to talk to them and reason with them. More often than not, it works and it’s never a problem after that.”

Hazel lives in the area and believes that her local knowledge helps in the fight against anti-social behaviour. “I know most of the kids around here, and their parents, so warning them that their parents wouldn’t like a visit from the police is a good way to defuse a situation,” she says. “It’s also important to remember that their families shop in the store so you don’t want to alienate them and give them a reason to stop coming here.”

That doesn’t mean that Hazel is a soft touch, though. Her laid-back manner is reserved for children alone, and she isn’t afraid to call the police if anyone else is stealing or causing a disturbance.

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Her approach has meant she has forged a strong relationship with her local police force. “We started getting in touch with them whenever something happened, rather than let it go or try to deal with it ourselves,” she says. “We have a good relationship with the police force and the community support officer, which really helps curb crime,” says Hazel. “Last week someone kicked our National Lottery street sign out onto the road and within two days the community support team had caught up with the culprit and had a word. I don’t think that’ll be happening again.

Because we’ve built up a good relationship with the police force, they’ll respond to calls quite quickly. We’ve never had to wait long for a response if there’s been shoplifting or trouble outside. They’re usually here within minutes.”

She isn’t one to forgive and forget, either. Anyone who is caught shoplifting is given an exclusion order from the store and, in some cases, compensation is demanded. The police got in touch with her last year about a shoplifter who owed the store for a fine and still hadn’t paid. They encouraged her to let it go as it was likely that he wasn’t ever going to pay up. This did not go down well with Hazel. “Even though it was only a couple of pounds, I refused to let him get away with it,” she says. “If the store starts getting a reputation for letting people off then we’ll become an easy target for criminals. There’s such a strong network among criminals that word would spread pretty quickly. The shoplifter is barred from the store until he pays, so he won’t be coming around here. The shoplifters know this and know we’re tough on crime.”

Hazel has worked at the store for 15 years, starting as a shop assistant and working her way up to become manager eight years ago. She says that, in that time, crimes have become more isolated, but also more serious.

“It used to be more common before, when lots of kids would come into the store at once and it would be impossible to control them, or watch what everyone was doing,” she says. “When it got too much we started limiting the number of children who could come into the store at one time.”

Hazel says that this policy has meant small-scale crime and anti-social behaviour are mostly in decline. “The kids know that they won’t get away with it, and that they’ll be moved on if they start causing trouble or intimidating customers.”

Armed robbery

But while the petty theft is under control, the threat of serious crime has grown, as Hazel explains. “At the end of last year, we suffered our first armed robbery. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but it was quite a shock to the member of staff who was on duty at the time. In fact, it’s a credit to my team that none of them took any time off afterwards. They didn’t want to let anyone down or show the criminals they had won.”

Following the raid, modifications were made to the store to improve its security. “We installed panic alarms and a 16-camera CCTV system that covers the entire store,” she says. “The last CCTV system wasn’t really up to scratch, but now there’s nowhere in the store that people can’t be seen by us. There were one or two blind spots before, but they’ve gone now. We also tell kids as they walk into the store that there are cameras everywhere, just in case they get any ideas.”

Hazel also believes that criminals have become more organised, so she’s had to act accordingly. “I have noticed that there are career shoplifters out there who think the store, and others in the village, are an easy target,” she says. “They plan it out like a shopping trip. They’re the ones you really have to watch.

“There’s a music festival in Brewood every July and the criminals know it brings a lot of people into the village,” she says. “It makes the shop very busy and it can be hard to watch everyone who comes in. So the week before the festival we limit the amount of products that may be a target for shoplifters, such as cheese, bacon, coffee, washing powder - these kind of items. We put just one or two of them on the shelf so there’s no gap, but it limits the amount that can be stolen. While it’s not ideal that one or two blocks of cheese get stolen, it’s better that than eight or nine. Most of our customers now know we do this as well, and they’re happy to ask for a product if there’s none on the shelf, so we won’t lose any business because of it.”

Hazel adds that she also moves some of the high-value items such as coffee and toiletries closer to the till so that staff can see them and keep an eye on anyone acting suspiciously near them. “We don’t go up to them and accuse them of shoplifting, we just make them aware that they’re being watched.”

Good causes

In order to establish a better relationship with the locals, Hazel also helps out where she can with community events. and if she can’t, she knows someone who might be able to. “If it’s prizes for a raffle or competition, then I can make a donation, but for anything bigger than that I’ll help them get in touch with the Blakemore Foundation, which is much better equipped to help out.”

Hazel praises Blakemore for its support, especially when it comes to crime prevention. “I always advise my staff on how to deal with situations, but Blakemore has given the team lots of training so I know that they feel confident to deal with almost any situation.

“If there’s ever a problem, they have been trained to press the panic alarm, which will alert the police, rather than take someone on themselves. They know not to risk their own safety, which is more important than anything else.”