Catching the credit crunch criminals
Published:  17 April, 2009

Security teams need to up their game during the downturn, discovers Hannah Prevett

The current economic crisis looks likely to put an end to the longest recorded period of falling crime in living memory in England and Wales. Despite car crime, robberies, violent crime and vandalism having been down over 10 per cent prior to the economic shift, petty crime is likely to see a surge over the coming year. And with pressure to reduce service charges at an all-time high, the onus is on shopping centre managers to protect tenants, shoppers and staff on a shoe-string.

“The government is trying to play it down to a degree, but the reality in life is that when times are really tight, there’s going to be a rise in crime and an increase in theft in particular,” claims Peter Jones, chief operating officer at UK security firm Reliance. “There have been some indications already that theft is up about 13 per cent compared with last year.”

Likewise, research conducted by security company G4S at the end of last year showed around one million British adults were considering shoplifting items for Christmas presents as a result of the downturn. And things are not likely to improve in the short term says Andy Lane, managing director at the regional guarding division at G4S. “With the economic downturn only worsening from the end of last year, there’s little to suggest that the trend towards greater levels of shoplifting will reverse over the short term.”

Mike Sorhaindo, centre manager at Tower Ramparts in Ipswich, admits that crime levels are already ramping up at the Suffolk scheme. “It is fair to say that we are already seeing signs of increased crime, especially in the shoplifting area of security,” he reports. Sorhaindo says that the downturn has also brought about a sea change in the type of offenders. “We have seen a marked increase not only in more sightings of our regular and persistent thieves within town centres, but also a growing trend in incidents reporting first time offenders, many of whom are from good social backgrounds that have been tempted into petty crime by recessional effects.”

However, theft is not the only threat that shopping centre security teams have to contend with in the current climate. As unemployment levels soar as a result of the downturn, an increasing number of people are finding themselves with more time
on their hands. “In places where this affects young people, in particular, they often congregate in and around shopping centre, which raises the chance of vandalism and anti-social behaviour,” explains Lane.

And while retailers will inevitably be impacted by the spike in crime, it is ultimately customers who are on the front line, says Jones. “In a dedicated retail environment like a shopping centre, the likelihood that crimes like shoplifting are going to increase is almost without doubt. But it’s customers of shopping centres that are the first line impact from that perspective,” he argues. While retailers have an accepted level of loss within their stores, there is no accepted level of loss for a shopper who may find themselves victim of a pickpocket, for example.

The good news is that shopping centre management and security personnel appear to be committed to tackling the problems posed by would-be criminals. “I think that [shopping centre] owners and managers are taking the issue quite seriously,” says Martin Taylor, chair of the BCSC Security and Safer Shopping Committee. “Obviously the current focus on reducing service charge costs presents an issue because logically you would say increase the security and obviously there’s a cost attached to that,” he says. “However, if the owner and retailers are talking together and being pragmatic, some additional security might be a reasonable investment within the service charge,” he says.

G4S’s Andy Lane says that managers and owners are acutely aware of the increased threat and they are being called upon to brief tenants on crime and loss prevention measures. However, like Taylor he is only too aware of the pressure to balance the rising threat with a constraint on service charges. “Despite the increased threat facing shopping centre, many have been forced to reassess their manned security levels,” he admits.

One area of consensus among shopping centre people is that it is vital for all stakeholders to play their part in the renewed battle against crime – the police, tenants, owners/managers must all come together. “The only effective way to do it is in partnership between all the stakeholders,” says Taylor. Reliance’s Peter Jones says the police and local authorities have a key role to play. Reliance works with Northamptonshire County Council, operating their control room which covers Northampton, Kettering and Wellingborough. “It is not quite a shopping centre environment, but it is all linked,” explains Jones. “The guys there will be talking to the security teams in the shopping centres, they’ll be talking to the police. It’s this very cohesive way of being able to respond effectively that has grown.”

“It’s about being coordinated with the police so they can deploy the right response, in the right way, to the right place, at the right time,” he concludes.

Mike Sorhaindo of Tower Ramparts agrees that presenting a united front is key to battling recession induced crime. One of the problems has historically been a lack of information, or a lack of transparency. Naturally, retailers and centres are reluctant to admit to their neighbours, and competitors, when a security breach has occurred. However, Sorhaindo says keeping in close contact with other schemes and retailers in the town centre is crucial.

“We are working closely with our retailers within the centre and those at other stores within the town centre network to keep them up to date with fresh intelligence on criminal activities and movements of regular shoplifters,” he reports

Yet, Sorhaindo too recognises the pressures faced by tenants and management alike and says centres must make the most of the resources they have available. “In the current market it is a difficult challenge for retailers who are looking to decrease overheads wherever they can to improve margins,” he explains.

“It is therefore unlikely to expect additional funding for security initiatives, but what is clear is that they need to work exceptionally hard with other crime prevention partners and their existing staff in detecting any known shoplifters in their stores and ensuring that all shop floor staff are well briefed in what to look for and disrupt these individuals at the first opportunity.”

It is likely to be an issue of a volume challenge rather than an approach challenge, argues Jones. “They may well have to deal with more of it rather than it being an unexpected or unpredictable event,” he explains.
“So rather than having wall to wall security, actually it’s about effective response; it’s about targeting the offenders or potential offenders and then managing that situation so you’re always on top of the threat.”




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