Town Safe: a response to shoplifting and anti-social behaviour

Photo credit: West Midlands Police

A new law on anti-social behaviour is likely to be passed next year.  Stuart Agnew, a criminologist from University College Suffolk, evaluated a police initiative aimed at tackling town-centre problems.

Suffolk Constabulary introduced the Town Safe initiative in December 2011 in response to higher than average incidences of shoplifting and public concern over levels of anti-social behaviour in Ipswich town centre. The project also provided support to an existing strategy to tackle street drinking in the town.

National crime statistics (.pdf) show shoplifting has been decreasing since 2009, but this was not the case in Suffolk, as shown in the graph below. An additional aim of the initiative was to improve partnership working with retailers in Ipswich Town Centre to maximise any beneficial outcomes of this strategy.

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Source: Suffolk Constabulary

The initiative was evaluated by academics from the School of Applied Social Sciences at UCS on behalf of Suffolk Constabulary. Police recorded crime statistics, responses to a survey of Town Safe Police Officers and retailers in Ipswich Town Centre in December 2011 and June 2012 and interviews with the supervising inspector informed the findings.

The Town Safe initiative introduced a dedicated policing team whose sole remit was the policing of Ipswich Town Centre. At its inception there were five constables and one sergeant involved in the initiative under the supervision of an inspector. The initiative was intended to operate for 6 months.

Retailers told the evaluation team that there was insufficient policing of Ipswich Town Centre prior to the initiative – this had also been reported in the local press. More than half the retailers believed the presence of street drinkers and high levels of anti-social behaviour made Ipswich an unsafe place to work and shop.

These perceptions were amplified by reports that response times to incidents could be in excess of 45 minutes. Policing was seen to have been ‘reactive rather than proactive,’ largely because officers were required to cover other duties elsewhere.

Retailers felt a lack of dedicated officers within the town centre made it more difficult to apprehend shoplifters and recover stolen goods.

Police Officers and retailers felt the Town Safe initiative had resulted in a range of potential benefits for all concerned. Police Officers suggested they had gained local knowledge which had improved intelligence gathering and improved relationships with retailers as well as with the general public.

Officers strongly believed training and assistance provided to store security staff under the initiative to help them develop higher-quality statements should improve the number of convictions in the courts.

Reports from both police officers and retailers all supported the notion that response times to incidents had been reduced due to the presence of Officers within the town centre. Retailers reported a reduction in the number of street drinkers and shoplifters around the town and improved communication by the police in terms of providing details of outcomes from incidents. These factors created a more supportive environment for retailers.

Almost all the retailers (98 per cent) felt very positive about the Town Safe team and suggested the Town Safe Team were vital to keeping Ipswich safe to work and shop.

Local crime data for the period, shown in the graph below, revealed there had been a decrease in recorded shoplifting offences compared to the same periods in 2009/10 to 2011/12. Data from December 2011 to the May 2012 showed an eight per cent drop in shoplifting compared with December 2010 to May 2011, and a five per cent drop compared with December 2009 to May 2010.

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Source: Suffolk Constabulary

Although almost eight out of ten retailers believed anti-social behaviour had reduced as a direct result of the Town Safe initiative, the graph below shows police recorded crime statistics did not support that view.

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Source: Suffolk Constabulary

The Town Safe initiative has been seen as a positive step in the policing of Ipswich Town Centre and it will be interesting to see whether such initiatives maintain the confidence of Police and Crime Commissioners. Retailers and police officers resoundingly saw the initiative as a success, feeling it had reduced shoplifting and increased the sense of safety and security in Ipswich Town Centre. Care must be taken regarding the rise in recorded anti-social behaviour – it could be related to increased recording of the crimes due to proactive policing.


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