Monday, October 15, 2007

Cops and robbers - new take, old story

Earlier this year, St John's Tea Room was given a short-wave radio, and became part of the city centre Safenet security network, as one of the measures taken to help the church cope with the persistent problem of purse and handbag theft. If our chief suspect turns up and is identified, we can inform others on the network (local retailers), and even ask for help. It reassures many who work in the Tea Room who are aware of the possibility of a predator, but not always confident about what to do if there is any suspicion that one is present. When crooks treat the church no differently from any shop, then the church has to protect itself in credible ways, in order to remain in the public eye, a safe place to be.

Today was the Safenet AGM, which I attended as a representative of 'stakeholder' St John's, and learned something of the intricacies of developing a new security network to service the city centre. It's not only about tracking crooks. It's invaluable in the case of someone suddenly going down with an illness, and needing emergency treatment. Currently the city centre is enjoying the trial deployment of a fully equipped cycle-riding radio-toting paramedic who can wherever help is needed a whole lot quicker than any other emergency service vehicle in the pedestrian area. For a while we had a cycle riding policeman as well (posh bike), but he was moved on, and there was no follow through. The presence of a bike-riding paramedic has been well received by the public and by those concerned for the welfare of the city.

But, to get back to back to cops and robbers, despite success in reducing violence and a decent detection rate on robberies and burglaries, one area where success is elusive is business crime, aka shop-lifting. The epidemic continues. At the Safenet meeting the national business crime prevention advisor told us how an audit had revealed that every shoplifting offender apprehended by store detectives and reported to the police cost £1,000 to process from offence to punishment, in time spent by police, prosecution service, lawyers and magistrates. Modern criminal and human rights legislation reforms have escalated the cost of due process. Many of those caught shoplifting are persistent offenders. Drug addiction is a key factor in all this, and it costs retail operations a significant proportion of their revenue. Nobody will admit just how big a proportion for fear of undermining shareholder confidence. What on earth can be done? It seems there is an alternative to illegal summary justice.

Under the law, someone caught shoplifting can, once their personal details are taken down, be excluded from entering the shop. The management is not obliged to trade with anyone who commits a crime against the retail outlet. So, it's possible for records of offenders to be kept by people in business, and shared within their commercial network for crime prevention purposes - through one brand of store and between store brands, so long as data is kept secure and confidential, with highly restricted access. In this wonderful age of high technology, there are several companies that have developed extensive business crime databases, capable of sharing information wherever secure telephony is available. Based on exclusion records the movement of 'business' criminals regionally, even nationally can be tracked and even predicted over a period of time.

It's a private initiative which police authorities would love to own. They can buy into it, if the local authority and business community are willing to stump up the hefty purchase price - let's say £20,000 for starters? That's the cost of twenty crimes fully processed. There are maintenance costs on top of that, but when thousands of crimes of this kind are committed every year in every city centre and retail park, adoption soon becomes cost effective.

It's interesting how police and crime prevention professionals' observations and intuitions are substantiated by data collected. In Wales, the movement of active criminals tends not to be to or from north or south, but rather along the M4 corridor, linking with the English M5 corridor. The names of shoplifters excluded in Bristol are recorded in Newport and Cardiff also. The vastly increased mobility possible for most people in modern society has meant that it is possible for criminals to exploit the fact that they are unknown in localities outside their home base. The ability to gather information on those who do nicely day by day, stealing from others reduces the anonymity factor considerably.

It doesn't do anything to tackle those factors that drive people to steal, whether that be mental sickness, dysfunctional family background, addiction, or a combination of all three. Maybe the additional pressure of detection will deter some from re-offending, maybe even cause them to question their futile lifestyles. Much more is needed, for there to be a real change, however. The ability of the police to catch thieves is constantly compromised by the lack of useful provision to put offenders into therapeutic and rehabilitation programmes that will eliminate the compulsion to steal at its very source.

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