Cuts in police budgets and a rising tide of retail theft have led to some out-of-the-box thinking on how to tackle business crime. The Southern Co-op’s Gareth Lewis tells C-Store how a joined-up approach is working in Sussex
For the Southern Co-operative, collaboration is in its DNA. So back in 2015, when overwhelmed by incidents of crime across its Sussex stores that reflected a county-wide problem, the society spearheaded a partnership approach to get on top of the scourge of business crime. The theory was that everyone - including independent retailers working on their own and an increasingly under-resourced police force - would benefit by working together.
It is clear from police figures from 2014 that traders in Sussex were feeling the impact of retail crime; some 24% of all recorded crime in the county was business crime. Of that, 40% was shop theft.
Gareth Lewis, the Southern Co-op’s loss prevention & security services manager, says the cutback in police budgeting prompted Sussex Police to approach him in 2015 about the volume of incidents being reported at the Society’s Sussex stores, and how they could do an effective job.
“The cutback in police budgeting gave the police a reason to be sitting at the table, talking to businesses about how they can still deliver a service,” Gareth explains.
Gareth gave them his vision of what he wanted to achieve. “It was about partnership, engagement, getting other retailers in the room. I’ve always believed that a retailer, however large or small, can’t deal with theft and antisocial behaviour in isolation. My view is let’s get people working together, collaboratively, sharing resources and intel appropriately, working with police and other agencies to identify what the issue is and targeting that issue.”
One of the first issues to tackle was inconsistent reporting of crime. “We were deploying our assets according to what our intelligence was. But that meant in some locations there were a significant number of incidents that were being reported to the police, and that set us [Southern Co-op] above quite a few other retailers. I know that some retailers don’t like reporting crime to the police and they like to keep it internal.”
For Gareth, the key was to get all retailers to adopt a consistent approach to reporting business crime. “Someone stealing a case of lager is not a 999 call as it’s not an emergency, but businesses were treating it as such. In such cases a police officer or PCO will visit your store; you (the store manager) will have to stop what you’re doing, spend X amount of time getting CCTV footage, preparing a statement, then there will be follow-ups. It’s ridiculous to waste police resource and time on incidents like that,” he says.
The initial idea was an online system that captured information from across the community: a business reports an incident on the system with basic detail, and so-called business crime wardens, who acted as a bridge between business and police, determine whether there is enough to push it forward as a crime. “If so, they gather the information, do the statement, get the stills and the CCTV, and it’s reported to the police as a crime,” Gareth adds. “If it doesn’t reach that marker, it becomes intelligence. Down the line you may get a similar incident and you may end up getting three or four [incidents] you can attribute to an individual - then you can put it forward as a crime.
“It’s like the spokes of a wheel - you’ve got a hub representing all the businesses getting all the info and intel from all the businesses, and sharing the outcomes.”
Southern Co-op and the police successfully won funding from the Home Office, which matched the Society’s funding for the project through the Police Innovation Fund.
Funding successfully raised, another hurdle was overcoming police bureaucracy. “There were issues on the police side with aligning themselves with something like this. It’s easy for a business to change direction and implement policy, but with a monolith like the police it’s very difficult: there’s the legality, data issues, procedural issues. Then they’ve got to engage with businesses and local authorities to deliver it,” Gareth explains.
They initially implemented the project in two locations: Eastbourne, where they could link up with the local business crime reduction partnership; and Littlehampton, because “we also wanted to pick an area with no such structure at all”.
“Littlehampton proved more problematic to get off the ground because you’re dealing with individual retailers, but we were able to get that off the ground and in both those areas it continues,” he adds.
The projects successfully achieved police savings, reduced shop theft and saw business engagement grow. One of the drivers of the success was the deployment of the business wardens, provided by private security firm SWL Security, who offer a visible deterrent and reassuring presence for the community.
The next step was to transform the project into a permanent model. So after six months in development, September 2016 saw the establishment of Sussex Partners Against Crime (SUPAC), a co-operative registered at Companies House. It is joint funded by Southern Co-operative and Sussex Police.
Basic membership costs just £1 a week and enables retailers to report business crime online and gain access to shared data for the local community, among other benefits. “If you’re a small business and you want an alarm fitted you can contact us at SUPAC and we can put you in contact with a supplier who can guarantee you the lowest price. We share the benefits wherever we can. That £1 figure per week - I mean, come on!” he says.
There’s a higher level of membership for those who want business warden services. “Business wardens are very much twinned with police in their area. They’re trained in self-defence and they’re handcuff-trained. They have been involved in physical confrontation - it’s not what we’re after, but it happens. Their primary training is in health and safety, and they’re all first- aid trained,” Gareth explains.
The overall response from business and the community in general to SUPAC has been “fantastic”, he enthuses. “Whatever money goes into the SUPAC pot is spent for the benefits of its members. The independent retailer can’t afford security guards or to spend money on loads of equipment, so this is about delivering a gateway to them as well, so they can be partners - to feel part of the solution rather than a victim.”
The partnership has already proven its worth on a legal level. Gareth explains: “For example, if we identify a repeat offender, the police can do their bit, but we can also apply for a civil court injunction under the law of trespass, which is costly. A breach of a civil court injunction then becomes a criminal matter.
“A breach could be as simple as walking past your front door. But it’s the process behind it that we will deliver as a service. If we’re in an area where we’ve got a dozen members and they’ve got antisocial behaviour issues - if we can identify them and issue an injunction, that is more powerful than anything that can be done through the criminal courts. Twinned with what the police are doing, you’ve got a really powerful response to that issue.”
A national impact
The key to targeting the perpetrators of crime is feeding local information “up the tree” to the national level, says Gareth. “It’s about delivering a structure that can take the local issues and triaging them upwards to county level and national level. The people who conduct ram-raids are organised gangs - we can’t deal with that, but if you feed it up the tree they can,” he says.
Looking ahead, Gareth wants to extend the scheme throughout Hampshire, Dorset, Surrey and Bristol, which is “a real challenge from a security perspective”. “Then you’ve got regional sharing before you get to national level. The potential is tremendous,” he adds. As C-Store went to press, the Southern Co-op was due to sign a partnership with Hampshire police in what could be a “really significant development” for the project.
As part of the group’s aim to create a national picture of crime and highlight its effect on retailers, Southern Co-op’s chief executive recently wrote to 68 MPs, four ministers and eight Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) across the society’s trading area. He requested support for its strategy, as well as calling for specific sentencing guidelines to protect shopworkers. The Southern Co-op obviously has more resources than independents, but its persistence is nonetheless a lesson to all retailers seeking political assistance.
“I was told to expect about a 12% response,” Gareth says. “We got a 16% response rate, including one from the Lord Chancellor. That allows me to use those contacts to further my strategy. If I go to the West Country I’ve got the contacts for the PCC and MPs to go and talk to, to open doors,” he adds.
Want to know more?
For Sussex-based retailers interested in SUPAC membership, tel 01202 977720, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Haywards Heath experience
In Haywards Heath, West Sussex, business wardens are available to the whole community because the town council contributes to the Sussex Partners Against Crime (SUPAC) pot.
At present, the Southern Co-op contributes about £10,000, the town council £16,500, and the Police and Crime Commissioner £8,500. The wardens are named community wardens to reflect the community-wide approach, but all operate under the same principles.
Community warden Fiona Curl (pictured) says her underlying approach is based on communication. “Every day I walk into stores and ask if anything’s arisen. If there’s been an incident, I’ll look at the CCTV, talk to staff and take details. If staff want help bridging the gap between them and the police, I’ll help,” she tells C-Store. “I go on patrol with police, too, but they don’t have the resources to go out all the time. As I’m on the beat I can spread intel.”
She says retailers can be a bit sceptical at first. “But now they realise the benefits. The stronger the community gets, the more low level crime will go down.”
From September businesses will have to start paying for the service when the PCC withdraws funding.
Leon Bonnett, store manager at the Southern Co-op store, says Fiona’s presence has enhanced a sense of security in store. “She knows everyone. If there’s a shoplifting incident, she’ll look at the cameras and she knows who it is. The next time she sees the shoplifter she’ll bar them,” he says.
Haywards Heath town councillor Steve Trice adds: “We’re not the mean streets of New York by any means, but we do have problems, we do have drug dealing and the warden has been party to instigating a major drug bust in town. They work with local shops on burglaries.
“Petty crime is fuelling larger crime. It’s generating the cash to go to bigger crime.
“The loss of the Police Community Support Officer and the local policing is where the council felt the gap was.”