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Belfast reinvents itself as centre of excellence in tackling retail crime

As retail businesses face unprecedented law-enforcement challenges with inconsistent Police responses to increasingly violent crime on the high street across England and Wales’ forty-three constabularies, a UK city with its own dark history is holding a beacon of hope for how public-private partnerships can work to make urban centres safer places to shop.

Belfast, which has a rich industrial past linked to shipbuilding, including the world-famous Titanic, has a bright future as a centre for sustainable “shop building” and providing an award-winning example to the rest of the UK of what good shopping centres could and should look like in the twenty-first century.

Ireland’s second-largest city is even piloting a project with Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) that could see persistent and prolific store thieves prosecuted for the more serious offence of burglary as a test case currently makes its way through the judicial system.

In this article, Sarah-Anne Attwood of Retail Crimewatch describes the scheme and its achievements to date and highlights her hopes for even greater engagement.

Retail Crimewatch Is Making a Difference

Belfast City Centre Management (BCCM) provides services and key projects on behalf of its funders that contribute in a measurable way to a cleaner, safer, more attractive, accessible, and economically vibrant city.

BCCM delivers its projects under the guidance of action groups that monitor economic performance and public space management, as well as promoting a safer city in partnership with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) who together are responsible for the delivery of the multi-award-winning Retail Crimewatch scheme, a crime reduction initiative aimed at preventing and deterring retail crime. The scheme allows shops to serve civil exclusion orders on those found committing criminal offences on their premises.

BCCM has an information-sharing agreement with the PSNI that enables the monthly distribution of images of prolific shoplifters who have had previous convictions for shoplifting within not just Belfast city centre but also other policing districts across Northern Ireland.

When a store detains an adult who has been caught shoplifting on their premises, they call the Police who subsequently arrest them. An exclusion order (EO) is issued to the shoplifter and signed by the business and the offender, who will then have their photograph added to the exclusion-order listing. The EO advises them that from the date the order is issued, they are no longer permitted to enter the premises or any other business that is a member of the scheme for a period of twelve months, therefore reducing the risk of further stock loss.

Retail Crimewatch has been in operation for nearly thirteen years with over 8,000 offenders being caught and served with an EO.

In April 2016, the Belfast One Business Improvement District was established in Belfast City Centre. It is currently delivering its five-year business plan, which aims to promote, enhance, and support businesses in the city centre through a series of projects. As a benefit to its levy payers, Belfast City Centre Management delivers and manages the Retail Crimewatch scheme as a free benefit for all retailers within the Belfast One area to help reduce retail crime in their area.

Retail Crimewatch has clear guidelines and objectives around the legitimate (in accordance with the eight principles of the Data Protection Act 1998) and lawful gathering, collation, processing, exchange, and management of all relevant information relating to retail crime by and between the retail/business members of the local partnership scheme. The PSNI contribution will be the legitimate and lawful provision and management of relevant photographs, descriptions, and information relating to an incident.

The Retail Crimewatch scheme objectives are:

-  The prevention and detection of retail crime
-  To reduce the opportunity to commit retail crime
-  The apprehension or prosecution of offenders
-  To reduce retail crime losses for members
-  To create a “safe and secure” environment for customers and staff
-  To strengthen partnerships with the PSNI, local authority, and others
-  To be an integral part of the local community safety strategy

Retail Crimewatch was, and still is, the first type of retail crime scheme operating in Northern Ireland involving photographic evidence to exclude prolific shoplifters. Members of the scheme are clearly identified by displaying the Retail Crimewatch logo on their windows. The scheme takes a very practical approach in dealing with serious shoplifting by empowering retailers to work together through the co-ordination of BCCM and the PSNI.

The Retail Crimewatch initiative delivered and implemented by BCCM has been extremely innovative in adopting best practice by town centre managers, addressing major concerns of safety for residents of the city, retailers, and visitors, and clearly demonstrating the added value of public-private sector partnership in funding service delivery.

Member businesses receive monthly image updates. This information is used to enhance staff vigilance and awareness of known offenders and assist in reducing stock loss. The scheme also assists in maintaining a safer environment for staff, customers, and members of the public alike. The Retail Crimewatch scheme incorporates over 400 businesses across Northern Ireland.

BCCM actively engages with security companies across Northern Ireland including Cobra Security, Scan Alarms & Security Systems, and Mercury Security, based in Lisburn.

Pushing Burglary to the Forefront

BCCM has worked in collaboration with the PSNI to identify new measures to escalate penalties served on prolific offenders. This has culminated in the PSNI devising a “flag system” for all Police officers within the Belfast District attending a shoplifting incident. The system, which is accessible to Police officers on their mobiles, informs the officer where a shoplifter has been detained and that an “excluded flag” will be created under the detained person’s name.

If an excluded person commits a further theft from a member store, then it will be mentioned on any prosecution file as an “aggravating factor,” and consideration should be given by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to have the excluded person tried on indictment for burglary. This new process has resulted in an increase in the number of burglary convictions.

BCCM has also met with the Department for Justice and the PPS to pursue stronger sentencing against prolific offenders committing retail crime. This has resulted in collaboration with the PPS on how amendments to the exclusion orders can increase the success rate of cases being presented at court on burglary charges. BCCM has now revised the EO form in conjunction with the PPS.

Further to negotiations with the PPS, there is an increase in the probability of prolific offenders being charged with burglary when found to have entered a store equipped to steal. This is a significant step in pursuing prolific offenders and obtaining stronger penalties for Retail Crimewatch members.

Due to the success of the scheme and our collaborative proactive campaign, more retail crime is reported to the PSNI, with a marked increase in the number of retailers completing and processing EOs. This has resulted in more prolific offenders being identified by the PSNI and accurate and timely information being distributed to the other retailers in the scheme.

Retail crime can have a significant impact on the performance of businesses, in particular the independents, as the financial loss of retail crime can quite literally put the viability of small businesses and the jobs it creates at risk. The increase in the number of images being distributed enables retailers to identify prolific offenders in their stores and, as a result of challenging these individuals, reduce their stock loss and minimise their financial loss.

Upon a retailer signing up to the scheme, BCCM provides comprehensive training to all staff, after which they will receive a package of aids, including an image folder containing convicted retail theft offenders divided into sections, exclusion orders, incident forms, sighting forms for PSNI intelligence, updates from PSNI on scams, and Retail Crimewatch logo stickers to display in store windows so that offenders know they cannot enter their premises. This sign also indicates that the shop is in possession of shoplifter images.

Because of the travelling nature of some business crime, BCCM also provides key messages from the Retail Crimewatch scheme in thirteen different languages to its members. Each folder contains A4 laminates of “notice to detained person,” which states why they have been detained and that the PSNI has been called.

Tackling Young Offenders

A key aim of the youth justice system is to protect the public by preventing offending by children. In support of this, the Youth Justice Agency is fully committed to working with victims of youth crime and taking account of their views of the process and its outcome.

BCCM works alongside the Youth Justice Agency to tackle shoplifting for its Retail Crimewatch members who have been victim to shoplifting and the responsible person was a juvenile (aged ten to seventeen).

BCCM will then attend a youth conference for young people who have admitted their guilt or been found guilty and agreed to come to the meeting, which gives young offenders the opportunity to understand and make amends to their victims for the effects of their offences and to take steps to stop offending.

It involves families, victims, community, and the young person in making a decision on what can be done to put right the harm caused.

BCCM expresses the impact the young person’s actions have on businesses and convey their views to the process. Suggestions are then made to the young person stating what the business would like the young person to do to make amends for the harm they have caused. These suggestions, and those made by others at the conference, will then help develop a youth conference plan. The Youth Justice Agency will then write a report to the PPS or youth court detailing what was agreed. If a young person fails to comply with the action plan they will be returned to court or the PPS will be notified.


Over the last twelve months, the Retail Crimewatch scheme has achieved notable success being award the Security Partnering Initiative of the Year Award at the Security Fire & Excellence Awards in London in November 2017. It was also awarded the Research & Development Project of the Year Award at the prestigious UTV Business Eye Awards in Belfast in December 2017 and was also shortlisted as a finalist at the European Association Awards 2018 within the Best Membership Initiative by an Association category.

Superintendent Robert Murdie of the PSNI said of the scheme, “The PSNI is delighted to receive such distinguished recognition for such an imperative scheme. Retail Crimewatch works by allowing us to share intelligence on fraudulent activity with the scheme’s members. We work with our partners to carry out regular training to retail staff and management on preventing crime, helping counterfeit prevention, and education on the latest shoplifting techniques. We look forward to continuing this important service and working with our partners.”

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