Over the Christmas period, we spent some time talking in the media about changes to the way the police, the courts and government respond to shop theft. There are a couple of separate issues at play here - first, different police forces are setting policies about how they prioritise their time and resource, with some not responding to shop theft below a certain threshold, for example £100. In reality, shop theft hasn’t prompted the arrival of several police officers and flashing blue lights for some time (if ever), but the public statement of these policies sticks in the throats of those of us who want to make sure shop theft is always seen as a crime with real victims.
The second and related issue exacerbates this problem. Shop thieves taking less than £200 worth of goods are now usually dealt with through an out-of-court disposal, which often means a ticket and an £80 fine. This in itself is a problem: there’s no deterrent against shop theft if the punishment is less than the incentive. However, the real problem is that some police forces often aren’t following the correct process for issuing these notices.
The guidance on out-of-court disposals for shop theft is very clear: repeat offenders, those with drug or alcohol problems, and any offence where there was violence used, are not appropriate for a fixed penalty notice. Yet this form of penalty is being used for people in all of these categories. What’s more, according to the last government analysis, about half of fixed penalty notices weren’t even paid, and updated analysis hasn’t been forthcoming which makes one sceptical as to whether this record has improved. There may be a place for out-of-court disposals to tackle some incidents of shop theft, but the system as it’s currently being implemented is not effective by any measure.
The solutions here are complex, and sit with government, police forces, PCCs, the courts, and businesses themselves. One thing however is very simple: shop theft is a crime and should be treated as such.