When it comes to building a strong relationship with local police it doesn't get much better than their setting up a base in your store. Budgens retailer Jonathan James is reaping the benefits after becoming the first
independent retailer in the country to host an in-store police office.
Jonathan, who has himself served as a police officer, has provided Cambridgeshire Police with back office space at his Soham store free of charge. The arrangement allows shoppers to discuss concerns with local officers and gives police a greater presence in the town - something locals have been campaigning for since the closure of Soham's full-time police station in 2000.
A police sergeant, a constable and four police community support
officers (PCSOs) now have a base to which they can return between periods spent on the beat. The office is currently open three times a week, twice a day for a trial period, with a view to extending the hours at a later date should it prove successful.
And the early signs are that it will. "The customer reaction has been great because it's brought the police into the heart of the community," says Jonathan. "The local force has been trying for so long to have a point of contact other than in Ely, which is six miles down the road, so it was great to be able to help. It was all done with the community in mind. Soham needed a police space and I had a spare office. It's not my own police force as some of the local papers have seemed to suggest!"
Jonathan is quick to admit, however, that having a police presence in and around the store has an obvious advantage. "Shoplifting incidents have fallen dramatically and I've not had to deal with any anti-social behaviour issues at this store since the office was set up," he explains. "Officers walk round the store and are a great visible deterrent. They try to make sure that they're available for customers to speak to at the front of the store. If they have to work in the office then there's an intercom that customers can ring to contact them.
"The community support officers sometimes help pack customers' bags. It gives them a good chance to chat to shoppers about any issues they have. The whole operation has cost very little to set up and I even provide the tea and coffee! I also offer half price jet washes for police vehicles. Everybody wins from the arrangement."
The police office has certainly strengthened Jonathan's ties with local officers, but he's enjoyed a healthy relationship with his local police for some time. This is helped to an extent by his 10 years as a serving officer and then as a police special, but it's not a relationship which has developed overnight
without any effort on his part. He explains: "The police provide me with security and as such they are in effect one of my suppliers. Like any supplier relationship it needs to be developed and worked on."
Jonathan urges other independent retailers to make contact with their local officers and adds: "I hear retailers say that police in their area are unhelpful, but this is usually only if the relationship has broken down for some reason. It has to work both ways. Retailers should get to know individual officers. They should know their local beat officers by name. They shouldn't be afraid to go and speak to them and introduce themselves. Retailers are much more likely to have a good relationship if they're seen as proactive. We can help them and they can help us."
Jonathan's relationship with the police is cemented further through Shopwatch and Forecourt Watch meetings - he also owns three forecourt stores in the area. "These regular meetings really help," he says. "We also work with the police to hold lady driver evenings at our forecourts. Local mechanics talk customers through basic main-tenance and the local accident reduction officer gives a talk on road safety. They're very popular and show the public we have good links with the community and the police."
Jonathan was one of the first independent stores to dish out automatic banning letters to criminals such as shoplifters. He explains that by doing this,
re-offenders can be dealt with more harshly as the crime can effectively be dealt with as burglary.
Jonathan also operates a strict 'No ID No Sale' policy on age-restricted products. His staff have to complete three-monthly refresher training courses and he carries out his own test purchasing. "It's an instant dismissal if anyone illegally sells someone an age-restricted product," he says. "I sacked two members of staff in a month when I first started the procedure, but everyone's very clear on the rules now. We used to have a challenge 25 policy but now it's challenge 21. Once the regular training was in place I felt that by challenging people who looked under 25 we were questioning too many people. The system we have in place now works very well."
Every crime which takes place in Jonathan's stores gets properly logged. Evidence packs, including items such as a banning order, full statement and a printout of high-quality digital CCTV images, are passed to the police.
"You have to be proactive as all crime affects your bottom line.
C-stores are always going to be targeted by criminals, but retailers can limit the damage by not letting themselves become an easy target."
Jonathan believes retailers have to be careful when it comes to dealing with potentially dangerous situations and adds: "The red mist can often come down when you're dealing with a problem, so you have to try and be controlled. All my staff are trained not to get involved and put themselves in danger but I do often find myself directly involved. You've just got to make sure you use
reasonable force and I'm fortunate in that, because of my background, I'm trained in how to handle myself."
Although Jonathan's relationship with his local officers is blossoming, he's frustrated with the overall national approach to tackling
business crime. While he's relieved that the Sentencing Advisory Panel looks to have changed its mind on removing the threat of a custodial sentence for shoplifters, a subject he believes is in urgent need of review is the issuing of Fixed Penalty Notices.
In his role as a vice chairman of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), he has strongly criticised their usefulness and adds: "Fines are a farce in my opinion. They just encourage the criminals to steal again in order to be able to pay, and most of the time they don't bother paying the fine at all. I recently gave evidence to the Sentencing Advisory Panel with the ACS. They listened to all the issues and to be honest it was obvious they didn't have a clue. I do understand retailers' frustrations and there's still a lot of work that needs to be done to get the authorities to realise the real impact of business crime."
Kieran Moran, Soham PCSO
"The new office in the store is immensely useful to us as a base for operations. I have everything I need at the office and can work from here very effectively. We used to carry out police surgeries in Soham but they weren't always that well attended. Now people can come and find us easily in their own town. The reaction from the public has been very positive indeed."