The ACS wants more forces to adopt a model used in Nottingham

Convenience stores have faced a record high of over one million theft incidents in the past year, the ACS Crime Report 2023 states. Some 63% thefts were committed by repeat offenders, with a brazen attitude to “stealing without fear of reproach”, as ACS CEO James Lowman puts it.

Unsurprisingly, retailers demand swift action. Which is why, as its report published last week detailed, the ACS called for police forces to introduce a ‘most wanted’ list of prolific shoplifters to tackle this woeful rise in repeat offending.

So how would the list work? And could it make a difference?

Currently the majority of shop theft is committed by a small number of offenders, often with addictions or as part of organised crime, according to the report. They are “known to businesses, police and the local community but there are no structures in place to target resources”, it says.

To counter the problem, the ACS calls for UK police forces to adopt a model used in Nottingham. It sees the police business crime lead consult with retailers to build a list, based on regular feedback, to share with convenience stores.

For each offender on the list, an evidence pack is developed, and Criminal Behaviour Orders are prepared with relevant conditions to address the cause of their offending, such as a referral to rehabilitation services. When offenders are next picked up by the police, the CBOs can be issued immediately.

It would also mean “when that person or group is next apprehended, the full extent of their offences are taken into account”, says Lowman.

The picture painted of repeat, organised shoplifters is recognised by David McKelvey, a former Metropolitan Police officer who is now the CEO of detective company TM Eye, which has funded more than 100 private prosecutions of shoplifters in criminal courts since 2020.

TM Eye works with Business Improvement Districts acting on behalf of retailers, and recovers its costs from offenders or the legal aid budget.

“You’ve got prolific gangs of organised shoplifters who will hit an area throughout the day,” he says. When targeting grocers, they might “clear a shelf of steaks, coffee or anything that’s expensive”.

Other priorities

But his experience does not bode well for the prospect of more forces adopting the Nottingham model. “We speak to the police on a regular basis and we are being told by senior officers: ‘We are not going to change our policies. We have other priorities’,” he says.

It does not help that the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 set a ceiling of £200 for shoplifting offences to be heard as summary only cases by magistrates. “It is rare nowadays for police to attend calls to shoplifters detained. And where the value does not exceed £200, we see little or no action taken.”

McKelvey also sees risks for retailers that might be tempted to make a list for themselves. “Retailers have considered compiling a most wanted list to deter prolific offenders, but naming and shaming suspects puts shop owners at risk of litigation and could breach the Data Protection Act where there are no ongoing or potential criminal proceedings.”

Stephen Halloran, a criminal defence lawyer and director of Lawtons Solicitors, agrees “there just aren’t the resources to deal with low-level shoplifting”.

“It is effectively decriminalising it. Twenty years ago, people would be prosecuted, but now it’s so rare to see any arrests for shoplifting cases.”

The ACS has not provided examples of any actions against offenders resulting from Nottingham’s model.

Even so, the mere compilation of a list by police may be of help to some retailers, says Halloran. “It may provide small shops with the ability to monitor certain individuals who could be a problem to them, and act as a deterrent,” he says.

He adds: “It could work in a similar way to pub watch schemes, which have been in existence for 20-plus years, whereby publicans are given a list of known troublemakers with a view not to serve them.”

A most wanted list may at least help shops to more easily spot known offenders, but with Nottingham the sole case study of its adoption, the prospects of even that remain unclear.