Police tell shop workers to detain thieves themselves

Police are encouraging shop workers to detain thieves themselves with a ‘citizen’s arrest’, sparking an angry backlash from critics who accuse them of asking civilians to do their job for them.

Several forces have outlined how employees can take the law into their own hands, saying shoplifters can be detained if they are ‘reasonably suspected’ of committing a crime.

There is a suspicion that a spike in offences is being fuelled by hardcore shoplifters who have little fear of being caught.

Bournemouth sweet shop owner John Keppie, 31, was warned he could be breaking the law after putting up ‘wanted’ posters of thieves in his windows

Shocking figures have revealed thefts from shops have risen by almost a third over the past decade. Businesses across England and Wales recorded more than 382,100 last year – more than 1,000 every day. Yet the majority of police forces refuse to attend incidents if the goods stolen are worth less than £200.

Victims are instead told to report the crime online or via the non-emergency number 101 for ‘intelligence’ only, meaning it is unlikely to be investigated.

The row comes after a Bournemouth sweet shop owner was warned he could be breaking the law after putting up ‘wanted’ posters of thieves in his windows.

John Keppie, 31, took the drastic action after officers failed to investigate a string of thefts caught on his CCTV cameras.

Now it has emerged that forces are pointing out to business owners that they can arrest suspects themselves – a departure from years of police advice which said victims of crime should always dial 999. Guidelines published in Devon and Cornwall, Essex and Northamptonshire highlight the power of a citizen’s arrest.

Emphasising that ‘personal safety is your first concern’, the guidelines add: ‘You can (make an) arrest if you know that an offence has taken place and reasonably suspect the person has committed it.

‘You can only exercise your citizen’s power of arrest when it is not reasonably practical for a police officer to make that arrest for you. In all cases you can use reasonable force to make the suspect comply with your instructions.’

The guidelines are in contrast to other forces, including Thames Valley and the Metropolitan Police, which urge shoplifting victims to dial 999 if ‘politely’ asking the suspect to replace the goods does not work.

James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said: ‘Many retailers have to deal with shop theft on a regular basis, and in far too many cases challenging thieves leads to abuse and violence.

‘The police need to respond to theft rather than putting shop owners and staff at further risk when making citizen’s arrests. Any indication that retailers are being left on their own to deal with potentially dangerous criminals is irresponsible.’

The British Retail Consortium said it was ‘plainly unacceptable’ that more than 50 workers were injured every day. It wants the Government to create a new offence of assaulting or threatening a retail worker as part of the Offensive Weapons Bill.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council said forces continued to ‘work closely’ with retailers to ‘deter shoplifters and prevent thefts’.

The law states that anyone can make a citizen’s arrest if they suspect someone of committing a serious offence – but it is not a decision to be taken lightly. In doing so, they will be protected by law if they use ‘reasonable force’ to detain an individual until police arrive.

Examples of when a citizen’s arrest could be appropriate include ‘preventing injury’ or stopping ‘loss or damage to property’.

Unlike a police arrest, there is no specific wording that should be used but the person should be told why they are being held.

In general, the courts have been sympathetic to citizens trying to stop others from breaking the law, but the number of citizen’s arrests has fallen dramatically. In 2002, more than 14,000 were recorded in London. In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, there were fewer than 2,000.

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