Co-op hires hardened ex-cops to stop violent shoplifters as thieving soars, with police 'ignoring most cases'

19 September 2023, 11:10 | Updated: 20 September 2023, 10:14

Co-op . Picture: Co-op/police

By Kit Heren

Co-op has hired ex-police officers to patrol its aisles amid a rise in shoplifting, but is having to let many thieves go because police don't turn up.

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Shoplifting in stores rose by 41% in the first eight months of 2023 compared to the same period last year, according to the company's head of campaigns and public affairs.

That amounts to 1,000 thieving incidents a day across about 2,500 locations. About five members of staff are being attacked every day.

Co-op said it had hired hardened, specialist security guards to block shoplifters - but their efforts were often for nothing because police would not come out.

Paul Gerrard said: "These are highly trained expert guards - often ex-police and ex-forces - who work undercover in stores where there's a particular problem.

Read more: 'Brazen and violent gangs' lead shoplifting spree at Co-op as bosses call for more help from police

Read more: Supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s Waitrose and Co-op 'will pay police to scan shoplifters' faces' in crackdown

A gang tries to break into a Co-op
A gang tries to break into a Co-op. Picture: Co-op/Police

 "They will intervene and make a citizen's arrest and detain the individual," he told MailOnline. "But even in those cases when we've detained an offender and called for police assistance the police don't attend in 80% of cases.

"That's despite us having the offender in our control in the store, with CCTV evidence.'We'll keep them until we know if the police are going to turn up or not - that could be 15 minutes or an hour.

"But if they're not going to turn up they let them go.

"In some ways it's even worse than not intervening in the first place because they know that even if they're caught they can still get out."

Shoplifting crisis is a ‘policing capacity challenge’ says Met Commissioner

He added that staff are being attacked with knives and syringes, and even bizarre medieval weapons. Some have suffered broken bones.

"We are running at about a thousand incidents of shoplifting a day across our two and a half thousand stores," he said.

"Four or five colleagues will be physically attacked every day. We've seen syringes, knives and we even saw a medieval mace a couple of years ago.

"This isn't just a bit of pushing and shoving - it's serious violence leading to broken bones."

Mr Gerrard said gangs and individual thieves were targeting stores - not opportunistic shoplifters.

Former Met Detective Peter Bleksley says shoplifting is not a 'victimless crime'

'What's behind the increase isn't opportunism," he said. "The majority of the rise is down to gangs and individuals who are targeting our stores to steal large volumes of products."

He said that the police response was variable, with some forces "really good at coming out and some... really bad."

"If you're to look at Essex Police, Sussex or Nottinghamshire Police you'll see that they've worked with us to get dozens of prolific offenders off the streets. That shows it's a solvable problem - this is about some specific regular offenders.

"We want police forces to take this seriously and recognise the impact it has on shop workers and the viability of shops so we can fix this... and work with retailers.

 "Because at the minute most police forces don't treat it as a priority and ask us to report it to 999 and 101 instead."

It comes after a shop worker told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast that she and her colleagues "don't know what to expect" when they go to work every morning.

"Stealing is going on every day. Shoplifting has always been in retail, it’s not new for us. But lately, it’s the robbery that’s happening," she said.

Police officers detain a young man on Oxford Street after a mass shoplifting event.
Police officers detain a young man on Oxford Street after a mass shoplifting event. Picture: Alamy

"People don’t just come in to steal some food or a bottle of wine, they come in to sweep the whole shelf."“They come with knives…we have been threatened. My colleague has been threatened.

"It’s very difficult working there now because we go to work and we don’t know what’s next."

Other major supermarket and retail chains, including John Lewis and Asda, have been targeted by criminal gangs, with a 26 per cent rise in shoplifting in the last year, according to the British Retail Consortium.

As well as the Co-op, the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), which owns Waitrose, has also expressed concern over the "rising numbers of shoplifting organised gangs" in their stores.

Lucy Brown, director of security for JLP, said: "We're seeing a real increase - some are one-off offenders but the majority are shoplifting on a regular basis, switching across all retailers.

"They will use major transport infrastructure to hit every retailer in a particular town or city or high street.

"We're also seeing a rise in organised crime with groups targeting stores - they want to take high volumes and high value in one hit."

Shoplifting has increased in recent months
Shoplifting has increased in recent months. Picture: Alamy

Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley told LBC this month that the lack of police response to shoplifting is due to a "capacity challenge".

"The balance of that effort has tipped towards policing being too much filling in gaps around social and welfare services and health services and therefore not having the time to fight crime," he said.

"Whilst we prioritise rapes and stabbings – they will always get the necessary response – that means the less serious crimes like shoplifting sometimes haven’t had the response that I would like them to have.

"I'm determined to sort those resource issues out so we can do a better job."

Meanwhile ten retailers - including Co-op - will take part in a £600,000 scheme dubbed Project Pegasus to pay police to protect them better from shoplifters.