An emergency meeting with police and the local authority helped Costcutter retailer Gayna Bacon fight back against a gang which had terrorised her staff and customers for months. Gaelle Walker reports

She had put up with the graffiti, the shoplifting and the constant verbal abuse. She even managed to hold her nerve when she was spat at in public. But when a member of her staff was threatened with his life after refusing to sell alcohol to an under-aged youth, Costcutter manager Gayna Bacon cracked, determined to take no more from the gang of yobs who had decided to make the area outside her store their HQ.
The size of the gang had increased over time, and on a number of occasions more than 30 yobs gathered outside the Southfields Drive store in Leicester, where they got a kick out of intimidating customers entering or exiting the store.
"Some of our more elderly customers or people on their own would be forced to wait inside the store until the gang had moved on," she says. "It was terrible."
The gang would also deface the store's walls and windows with often obscene graffiti, which returned as fast as it was removed. "We'd spend hours getting rid of it, and then the very next day it would be back up there," says Gayna. "It was their way of stamping their mark and, I suppose, their authority on the area."
Graffiti is a form of criminal damage that can carry the risk of a £5,000 fine or even three months' imprisonment under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 (section 1). However, penalties are rarely handed down. Figures from environmental charity Encams suggest that more than £1bn is spent on graffiti removal in Britain each year.
Gayna's gang problem escalated in July and August when an increasingly large number of youths started to gather outside the store. Their presence was now beginning to have a big impact on sales, as customers chose to shop elsewhere to avoid the gang. Profits were also being hit by a rise in shoplifting.
"Members of the gang would come in at night when they knew that there were only two members of staff working. They would then split up inside so they would be harder to keep an eye on, and go on a stealing spree," Gayna recalls.
The fact that the store had a good CCTV system was no deterrent, as the youths would simply pull up their hoodies so their faces couldn't be identified.
Before long, the intimidation had become so bad that it was affecting the staff, too. "They were becoming reluctant to come to work for fear of the gang," she says.
This was little wonder, given that refusing to serve a gang member could earn a serious reprisal, as one staff member found out when he had his car tyres slashed.
Gayna and her team had tried to contact the local police on a number of occasions, but had received little comfort from their response. "Sometimes an officer would come two or even three days after we had reported a crime, by which time it was obviously too late to do anything."
In the end, Gayna gave up calling and tried to take matters into her own hands. "We barred some of the worst offenders, but that only seemed to make things worse, and staff became even more fearful of reprisals."
Gayna even tried to speak to some of the troublemakers' parents, but to no avail. "Most just didn't care, and I even received abuse from some of them," she says.
The situation came to a head in December when a gang member threatened to kill one of Gayna's staff when he refused to sell a gang member alcohol.
"Something had to be done. It had just gone too far," she recounts.
Gayna made the difficult decision to cut down her night-time opening hours, when the levels of crime and antisocial behaviour peaked. She also doubled the number of staff working in the late afternoon and early evening, from two people to four. "It was a tough decision as it obviously meant losing money, but it had to be done," she said.
Her next step was to demand an emergency meeting with staff, police, Leicester City Council officers and local councillors. "The meeting was a great success," says Gayna. "It finally gave us the chance to get everything off our chests and confront the issue head on."
Police and councillors pledged to assist Gayna by working together to combat the problem. The police also promised to increase their presence in the area.
And the good news is that so far the police have stayed true to their word. "Police and police community support officers have been coming in every day, and now patrol the area regularly," she says. "Their presence has not only helped to disperse the gang, but it has also been hugely reassuring for our staff."
During the meeting, the police advised Gayna to keep a record of all criminal incidents, no matter how trivial, and to call them whenever she felt the need.
The council is also doing its bit, by looking at ways to improve lighting in the street. It is also consulting on whether or not to remove the railings outside the store, where the youths sit. "If we can't get the railings removed, the council has said that things can be done to make them more uncomfortable to dissuade people from sitting on them," she says.
The council also threatened to evict any tenant whose family members are caught behaving antisocially.
"The meeting has been a great success," says Gayna. "It has helped us to forge much closer links with the council and police. It has sent out a clear message to the youths that we will not tolerate such behaviour any more."
And it looks like the message has been received loud and clear. A month on from the meeting, Gayna says that the gang hasn't returned. "After years of problems, we can finally get on with our jobs. Hallelujah!"