Crackdown on shoplifting in Barnstaple

A WALK along Barnstaple High Street is usually a great chance to bump into a friend, browse the shops and come away with a bargain or two, writes Andy Keeble.. It s a safe, welcoming environment that seems a million miles away from the problems associated

A WALK along Barnstaple High Street is usually a great chance to bump into a friend, browse the shops and come away with a bargain or two, writes Andy Keeble..

It's a safe, welcoming environment that seems a million miles away from the problems associated with some of the country's larger towns and cities.

But today, the blinkers are off. I've been offered the chance to look beyond the everyday street scene and take a first-hand look into a murky world of thieving and shoplifting that sadly, is as much a part of rural North Devon as it is every town and city in the country.

Today, I get to see and hear first hand the effects of shoplifting, so often labelled a "victimless crime". And I get the chance to discover how an unseen, unheard undercover network of police officers store detectives and CCTV camera operatives is working together to deny criminals the upper hand.

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After a quick briefing session at the police station, I joined PC Terry Hodgeson on what was a fairly quiet Thursday morning on Barnstaple High Street. Although I was told what to expect, it still came as a shock to me that within minutes, the veil on retail crime was very quickly lifted.

PC Hodgeson is connected to fellow officers, CCTV operators and overt and covert store security staff via a discreet radio link. Almost immediately, we are alerted to a number of known shoplifters who could be operating in the area. Dressed in jeans and casual jackets, we blend in with other shoppers and begin to trail two adult males as regular updates are radioed in about the location of other known offenders in the area.

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It's a bit of an eye opener. As oblivious shoppers make their way from shop to shop, it's a little unnerving to think they could be rubbing shoulders with those who prefer to do their shopping outside the law.

"There's a whole industry of shoplifting happening in Barnstaple on a daily basis," said PC Hodgeson.

"It's a crime that goes on in every High Street every town across the country. A fair proportion of offences are linked to drug abuse and for many, thieving and begging is all about topping up the �10 they need for their next fix."

Although reported figures show a 1.5 per cent increase in reported shoplifting in the whole of Devon and Cornwall during the last 12 months, figures for northern Devon show no increase. A total of 365 incidents were reported between April 1 2008 and September 30 2008. Exactly the same number of retail thefts were recorded between the same period this year. Of these crimes approximately 60 per cent of offenders were brought to justice.

While many people will argue that stores are insured against losses, a chat to one security guard at a major High Street retailer revealed a far darker side to the crime.

"I deal with around two-or-three incidents a week and about one in every four results in various threats and abuse," he said.

"I've been punched and kicked, threatened with stabbing, and have had to roll around on the floor with a suspect at least four or five times. Two months ago, a shoplifter spat in my mouth and claimed he was HIV positive."

A CCTV operator at the same store said that a brand new �85,000 CCTV system had paid for itself within the first eight months.

He said: "This place was getting ripped to pieces but since it was installed three years ago, it has helped police to make more than 160 arrests.

"It's been superb and has made it so much easier for police to actually convict thieves.

"A lot of the people who try to rob from the store are well known to staff and can be very intimidating. I think staff appreciate us being here and feel safe knowing we're here to look after them."

We leave the store and head down the High Street again and within minutes, PC Hodgeson is called to assist with the arrest of a 31-year-old female shoplifter caught leaving another store without attempting to pay for goods.

This time, the suspect was caught by a plain clothed store detective, one of a number working in the town that day. She is taken into custody for further questioning, one of a number of options available to police.

As well as arrests and searches, officers can also issue on the spot �80 fixed penalty notices for certain thefts of under �100, while first time offenders under the age of 18 can be given Youth Restorative Disposals for very minor offences.

Store detectives also have the right to impose a Civil Banning Notice to ban both suspected and convicted thieves from entering their shops.

And while experienced CCTV operators provide 24-hour back-up, more than 60 Barnstaple shops and 20 pubs and clubs are members of Shopnet, a retail security radio network that enables businesses to keep in contact with each other, as well as CCTV operators and the police.

"We will continue to work with store security and CCTV operators to disrupt, catch and convict those who steal from shops and threaten the safety of store staff in the town," said PC Hodgeson.

"The initiatives are well-supported by the Barnstaple Town Centre Management and businesses in the town. They help to build confidence among traders and members of the public, and provide reassurance to store staff who at times have been threatened or are at risk of abuse.

"Police hold regular training sessions with store detectives and store staff to offer basic awareness advice and detection techniques for retail crime.

"And we will continue with plain clothed operations throughout the year and particularly in the run-up to Christmas."

As a result of Thursday's plain clothed operation, four arrests - two male youths and two female adults - were made for shoplifting offences. One �80 fixed penalty notice was issued to a 69-year-old local woman, while four juveniles caught stealing items from various shops were given Youth Restorative Disposals.

Four negative searches were carried out on suspects under Section One of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

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