Police pledge shoplifting crackdown with facial recognition to make ‘hostile environment’ for thieves

Police have pledged to attend more shoplifting incidents and use facial recognition technology to catch thieves in a crackdown on Britain’s shoplifting epidemic.

The Home Office has announced a new action plan with retailers and police chiefs which they claim will create a “hostile environment” for shoplifters after it was revealed that offences have increased by 25 per cent in the past year.

Some 365,164 offences were recorded in England and Wales in the year to June 2023, up a quarter on the previous 12 months, according to data released by the Office for National Statistics last week.

Policing minister Chris Philp called for a zero-tolerance approach to shoplifting on Monday, as he chaired a meeting with senior police leaders and 13 of the UK’s biggest retailers to launch the new Retail Crime Action Plan.

However, Labour has branded the scheme “too little, too late”, adding that the situation on high streets was “dire”. It follows recent incidents including the mass looting of shops on London’s Oxford Street this summer in a suspected social media craze.

The plan, which Mr Philp called a “step change” in the fight against retail crime, includes a police commitment to prioritise urgently attending the scene of shoplifting instances involving violence against a shop worker, where security guards have detained an offender or where attendance is needed to secure evidence.

Police attendance will be assessed based on risk, the Home Office said, while prolific or juvenile offenders will be treated with higher priority.

Police have also reaffirmed their pledge to follow up on any evidence that could reasonably lead to catching a perpetrator while forces have promised to step up targeted hotspot patrols in badly affected areas.

Where CCTV or other digital images are secured, police will run this through the Police National Database using facial recognition technology to identify thieves, the Home Office said.

In addition, the Home Office is launching a national partnership “Pegasus” funded by retailers including John Lewis, Co-op, and Primark, to share intelligence on retail crime to build a more “joined up” approach to catching offenders.

Mr Philp said: “We are deeply concerned in government about the recent spike in shoplifting and the accompanying spate of assaults on retail staff. We are determined to clamp down on this with a zero-tolerance approach enshrined in today’s plan because we are concerned about the risk of escalation.

“We don’t want the UK to end up like some US cities where this has got out of control. And that is why we are going to be hitting this hard with today’s plan to put retail crime back in a box and fight it.”

Philp is ‘deeply concerned’ at the recent spike in shoplifting across the country (PA)
Philp is ‘deeply concerned’ at the recent spike in shoplifting across the country (PA)

So far, 13 shops have pledged £30,000 each per year for two years to set up a dedicated team of specialist analysts and intelligence officers to work within Opal – the national policing team that oversees intelligence on serious organised acquisitive crime. The Home Office has also committed £30,000 for the first year of the project.

Recruitment of five dedicated analysts has already started with the team set to be operational later this month, The Independent understands.

However, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called the scheme “too little, too late” and called for greater investment in neighbourhood policing. She said: “The Conservatives have let the gangs fuelling this crime take hold in our towns and high streets, while bringing in laws that make it harder to take action on shoplifting and cutting 10,000 neighbourhood police from the streets. So dire is the situation that the policing minister last month called for shoppers to do citizen arrests instead as there aren’t enough police.

“Labour will scrap the £200 rule which stops shoplifting being investigated, put guaranteed neighbourhood patrols back into town centres with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and PCSOs and bring in stronger laws against assaults on shopworkers.”

Last week the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents ranks and file officers, said it was alarming to see a drastic rise in shoplifting, but insisted forces will need more resources to tackle the problem.

National Chair Steve Hartshorn said: “Forces will take action the best they can, but ultimately, we need more boots on the ground as our current workforce is already drowning in demand.”

Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for acquisitive crime, said she “welcomed” the collaboration between retailers, police and crime commissioners, which will help catch the most prolific and habitual shoplifters.

Police and crime commissioner and business crime lead for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, Katy Bourne, said the project will be a “game changer” in the fight against retail crime.

“Pegasus will be a game changer in the fight against retail crime providing for the first time an accurate national picture of the organised groups from local families to cross-border criminals driving organised shop theft,” she added.

The John Lewis Partnership has backed Pegasus (PA)
The John Lewis Partnership has backed Pegasus (PA)

Paul Gerrard, of the Co-op group, said he hopes the announcement will mark a turning point in the policing of shoplifting amid a “rampant rise” in retail crime.

He said: “Alongside operation Pegasus, which the Co-op is helping to fund, we are hopeful that this will mark the point at which the police will provide the support to protect shopworkers and shops so they can help the communities they serve thrive.”

Nicki Juniper, head of security for the John Lewis Partnership, which is also backing Pegasus, said: “While there’s no silver bullet for tackling retail crime, we welcome this significant step forward.”