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Dangerous goods

New Zealand retailers are facing a spike in aggravated assaults that’s traumatising staff, destroying premises and eroding profits. Should we be scared? And what can be done to stop it? Sarah Dunn examines the issue.

By Sarah Dunn | September 14, 2017 | News

It seems as if there’s a new headline about violent crime against a retailer every day.

In June alone, news stories reported that retailers were attacked by masked robbers bearing a tomahawk who injured a Hamilton dairy worker when he tried to defend himself; an Oamaru hairdresser who used an imitation pistol to rob three Dunedin retailers of more than $8,000; and a shoplifter who seriously injured an assistant store manager at The Base’s The Warehouse outlet by deliberately driving into her.

Expanding the focus to late May and early July also brings us the Palmerston North liquor store worker who was struck with a large slasher-like weapon; an eight-person brawl outside a greengrocer’s in Hamilton; a Hamilton dairy worker who was hit with a steel bar in front of her two young children; and two separate Nelson dairies which were robbed by masked teenagers.

Ironically, dairy owner Rakesh Bandi had moved his family to Nelson from Christchurch in the hope of avoiding such robberies. 

Aggravated assaults are on the rise

The flood of headlines about aggravated robberies against retailers isn’t just a media beat-up, says Inspector Penny Gifford of the New Zealand Police. She confirms aggravated robberies have been trending upwards in 2017, saying police started to notice an escalation in April.

Gifford reports that more than 100 aggravated robberies have been committed between 1 April and 30 May nationwide. According to data released by the police, aggravated robberies were up 87 percent on the previous year at May 31 2017, in comparison with a nine percent rise in non-aggravated robberies.

Gifford says the increase in aggravated robberies has not been driven by any particular factor, but cites social media as a new consideration. Police overseas have noticed a pattern whereby offenders share coverage of a crime they've committed on social media to gain “notoriety”, which then encourages others to commit similar offences. This is traditionally more relevant to assaults, says Gifford, but it could also apply to aggravated robberies.

Other contributors to the spike in aggravated robberies include rising numbers of youth offenders from low socio-economic backgrounds who have themselves been the target of family violence and are involved in intergenerational crime. Gifford points out that people committing a robbery tend to also commit other crimes – they may be involved in drug offences or selling stolen goods, for example.

One thing Gifford does not believe is a contributing factor to the rise in aggravated robberies of retail premises is the increasing cost of tobacco. A series of four 10 percent annual tax hikes implemented in 2016 are expected to push the price of a 20-pack of cigarettes from around $20 to around $30 by 2020.

Several individual retailers have been reported as asserting that the rise in aggravated robberies are linked to a black-market trade in stolen tobacco products, but Gifford says cigarettes and tobacco products are a “high-reward item” that’s stolen in 44 percent of commercial robberies.

“Aggravated robbery isn't a new phenomena and cigarettes have always been targeted.”

In response to a query as to whether retailers are targeted by criminals more than other professions, Gifford says she hasn't seen data comparing crime rates, but suspects they probably aren't.

“We're obviously looking at retail at the moment and it's obviously disturbing, but if you look at other professions - teachers, taxi drivers, police – there are offences being committed against them, too.”

Enough is enough

Indian community leader and founder of the Crime Prevention Group, Sunny Kaushal has worked hard to bring mainstream attention to the plight of retailers since launching the Crime Prevention Group in early 2017. This lobby group was prompted by the same spate of aggravated robberies at SME retail outlets that caught the attention of police.

“I said, ‘Well, enough is enough, this is the time.’”

Hardworking, law-abiding taxpayers shouldn’t be subject to aggravated assaults, says Kaushal: “They shouldn’t have to live in fear.” With the Crime Prevention Group, Kaushal hopes to put pressure on the government and force it to take action. Its focus is broadly on law and order, but retail is a key part of this.

“Brutal attacks on retailers in broad daylight show these offenders have no fear of the police, no fear of the law of the land, no fear for any kind of consequence.”

The group’s achievements have so far included a 7,000-signature petition for ‘Better policing and tougher laws for assaults and robberies’; a protest rally in Manukau on April 30; a cross-party forum for political leaders to discuss retail crime; a memorandum presented to parliament with demands for change; an anti-crime advertisement that went viral in China; and a meeting with the Indian High Commissioner.

“The whole ultimate goal is, we wanted to make sure our retailers, our businesses, are safer,” says Kaushal.

He’s proud of the progress his group has made, but wants more significant commitment from the government. Ideally, he’d like the government to toughen its legislation against assaults, and review its policy on punishment of youth offenders.

Kaushal has been widely reported as calling for retailers to be armed, but clarifies that he doesn’t mean they should have guns. He instead wants clearer rules around the mode and manner of legally-acceptable self-defence, and for retailers to be allowed weapons that aren’t guns, such as baseball bats and pepper spray.

“New Zealanders need to be able to stand up against rising crime.”

Over just three days in June, three incidents were stopped by heroic actions from members of the public, Kaushal says. He sees intervention from the public and community involvement as a key component to reversing New Zealand’s retail crime spike, and hopes the three incidents were a sign of change to come.

“We are really happy that this is taking shape.”

Asked for his perspective on why crime against retailers has increased, Kaushal says he believes New Zealand’s gangs are producing a “second tier” of child criminals. Poor parenting and a lack of respect for law and order drives these individuals into crime, which is fuelled by people purchasing stolen goods on the black market.

“This is not about the robberies. This is a bigger societal problem. These are behavioural problems.”

The cost of staying safe

Retail NZ is also concerned about the level of violence that retailers are currently facing. Its general manager public affairs Greg Harford spoke of his worry for those who’ve been victimised at work.

“While there has always been a degree of retail crime, it is becoming increasingly menacing, aggravated and violent,” he says. “This creates real danger for people working in retail and sometimes customers. There is a real impact on those who suffer violence in their workplace – not just the risk of physical injury but also the emotional toll of having been victimised.”

Separate to personal risk faced by retailers and their staff, there’s also an economic cost – Harford says retail crime as a whole costs New Zealand around $1 billion each year, based on information supplied by the University of Otago’s New Zealand Survey of Retail Theft and Security. This compares to the total cost of all road deaths in 2015, valued at $1.4 billion by the Ministry of Transport’s Value of Statistical Life equation, and the the estimated total social cost of drug-related harms and intervention costs in 2014/15 ($1.8 billion) as published in The New Zealand Drug Harm Index 2016.

Annually, Harford says, retailers spend more money on alarm systems and surveillance than they do on staff training. However, investing in security can be difficult for often-targeted SME retailers such as dairies.

This is where the Government’s new funding for the prevention of robberies at dairies, superettes and small local businesses comes in. On June 1, Police Minister Paula Bennett announced that $1.8 million would be made available for shopkeepers to co-fund security and prevention measures.

“Businesses assessed as being high risk will be invited to apply for co-funding for things like panic and high volume interior alarms, DNA spray, fog cannons and time safes for cash and storage of cigarettes,” Bennett says. “Shop owners will also be given advice about how to alter the layout of their shops to make them safer.”

The funding is aimed at small family-owned or individually-owned businesses that have been assessed by the New Zealand Police as being at high risk of aggravated robbery, but can’t cover extra security costs without help. It will cover up to 50 percent of the cost of security measures, or a larger share under exceptional circumstances.

“Businesses at high risk of robberies will be determined by using established intelligence assessment tools that overlay crime rates with other characteristics, such as type of crime, the time of day and location,” says Bennett. “Police have assured me that they will be able to support the majority of high-risk businesses over a six-month period.”

Bennett expects that all of the 500-600 businesses that have been considered high-risk will be eligible for co-funding, and says an additional 3,500 businesses will receive a safety-advice visit.

 “Aggravated robbery is a serious crime,” she says. “These criminals need to know that they could face 14 years in prison and they’re much more likely to get caught now police have these new measures in place.”

“We’re taking this issue seriously, we want to stop these awful crimes from happening to innocent victims in the first place and make sure these cowards are off the streets.”

Stopping the violence

Retail NZ welcomed Bennett’s extra funding, but commented that funding extra security was only part of the picture. Retail NZ’s Harford says dealing with the bigger picture of retail crime ultimately requires a cultural shift from the public against tolerance of crime.

“Retail NZ recently published a three-point action plan for dealing with retail crime, in which we proposed the establishment of a specialist Retail Crime Taskforce, a social change programme to make it clear that crime is not acceptable.”

Retail NZ believes the increased violent crime retailers are currently experiencing can be traced back to a lack of consequences for petty crime such as shoplifting. In its white paper ‘Facing retail crime: An action plan for change’, Retail NZ described these crimes as “gateway” offences.

“A lack of police resourcing means that there is often a lack of consequences for petty crime, and anecdotal reports suggest this is linked to the increase in brazen criminality among the perpetrators. This drives repeat offending.”

The white paper calls for the introduction of the Retail Crime Taskforce; an educational programme aiming to encourage Kiwis to respect the law and understand the impact of crime; and an amendment to sections 223 and 410 of the Crimes Act 1961 to bring in a traffic-style “infringement notice” offence that would result in fines against those stealing low-value items.  

Gateway offences

Crime-prevention software company Auror has a unique perspective on the relationship of lower-level crime to aggravated robberies. The technology works by allowing retailers to log in online and report a crime in under 10 minutes by alerting local police and is ideally suited for tracking shoplifting.

Chief executive Phil Thomson shares Retail NZ’s view that shoplifting is a gateway crime that can lead to more serious offences. Addressing crime is important not just for financial reasons, but for the health and safety of staff, he says.

“For quite a while, retail crime has been under-reported and ignored,” says Thomson. “It’s all around us every day.”

Many of these crimes, such as shoplifting, are committed by “nuisance offenders” but the costs stack up.

“Because people are turning a blind eye on everything else, it’s become easier for offenders and they become more and more confident.”

There’s less Auror data available for violent crime against retailers than for lower-level offending as events like aggravated robberies are often an emergency. This means it’s more appropriate for the retailers involved to call 111 rather than logging the event on Auror.

That being said, Auror data can help create a fuller picture of the offenders involved in violent crime by adding information about low-level crimes they’ve also committed. In partnership with Z Energy, Thomson says, Auror has found that the same vehicles involved with fuel drive-offs are often used in ram-raids, and also in crime targeting other retailers.

Low-level theft tends to be opportunistic, but more serious offenders have a different perspective.

“It’s effectively their job, nine to five, to steal.”

Whether or not a shoplifter is prone to violence will depend on them personally, Thomson says. He says issues can arise when the offender is confronted at the till or when they’re on their way out: “They thought they’ve got away with it and therefore they become angry.”

Groups are more likely to be associated with violent incidents. For example, five people may “stand over” a retailer to demand money or goods.

Thomson says offenders are known to use rules that forbid people taking aggressive action against them to their advantage, but agrees with police that personal safety for retailers is more important.

Trespass notices and civil recovery are two legislative tools Thomson recommends for retailers wanting to address crime.

“Knowing that there’s a consequence to their actions is important.”

Don’t be a hero

While inspector Penny Gifford has a wealth of advice for retailers who’d like to improve their store’s safety, the main message she’d like retailers to keep in mind is this: “Loss of life trumps loss of stock.”

Individual safety must be paramount when there’s a robbery at your store, even when your instinct is to protect your livelihood, says Gifford. This means your priority should be getting out of the shop or getting yourself to a safe place within the building and calling the police.

Recent news media articles have featured a number of retailers who've successfully repelled offenders by engaging them in a fight (or, in the 2016 case of Egyptian Kebab House owner Said Ahmed, simply ignoring them). Fairfax Media described in June how Hamilton dairy worker Ram Sharma grappled with an axe-wielding intruder, and was joined by his parents in pushing the man outside the store. Sharma was taken to hospital with a gash on his finger.

Other retailers have made public threats against criminals in the hope of deterring them from robbing their store. In March 2016, South Auckland dairy owner Indy Purewal told TVNZ that a hockey stick and cricket bat were kept in the store to defend himself and his staff. He was also reported as telling police that he had a knife and a gun, and would “head out himself” in pursuit of a group of young women who had just robbed his store if police didn’t follow up in person.

He said his staff did not use their weapons to attack during that robbery as they were uncomfortable hitting women, but warned that “if it happens again it’ll be very different”.

This approach is misguided, says Gifford.

“We understand they're upset, but again, it comes back to that individual safety. Confronting someone and attacking them is never going to be the best option,” she says. “If you meet violence with violence, someone is going to get hurt.”

She says engaging a violent offender is very dangerous as it's impossible for a victim to tell just what they're dealing with. 

“If drugs are involved, or other issues are involved, they may be able to fight a lot longer and a lot harder because they're not in a normal state of mind.”

Gifford adds that you can't tell what kind of items an offender is carrying – they may be armed, or have additional weapons to those they're brandishing.

“We would not in any way encourage retailers to try to confront offenders,” she says. “Personal safety comes above everything else.”

Keeping the doors open

Welcoming strangers into your shop is at the core of bricks-and-mortar retail. Private citizens can lock their doors and bar their windows if they feel unsafe, but if you as a retailer want to keep selling your stock, you can’t avoid coming into contact with new customers. That contact comes with a risk that some of these strangers may mean you harm.

However, not every customer will be a stranger, and it’s within retailers’ power to build those relationships within their local community. Most retailers understand the business value of sponsoring school sports teams, posting community notices on the wall or window and displaying charity collection boxes on the counter, but what seems clear from discussions with the police, the Crime Prevention Group and Auror is that being an active part of the community is also the key to reducing harm from crime.

Kaushal recalls a run of three days in June in which three violent incidents against retailers were stopped by heroic actions from members of the public. He sees intervention from the public as a key component to reversing the spike in violent crime against retailers, and hopes the three incidents were a sign of change to come.

Auror’s Thomson says being friendly and saying “Hello” to a potential shoplifter reduces the likelihood of their offending by 80 percent.

Gifford speaks of a recent South Auckland case in which a group of youths held a knife to the throat of a retailer during a robbery. One youth was later brought to police by his mother, who wanted to hold her son to account for what he'd done.

Making an effort to build relationships with your neighbours and giving the community a sense of ownership over the store will reduce the temptation for criminals to rob it, she says. It will also increase the likelihood that if an offence does occur, help will be close by.

“It really needs a whole of community response,” says Gifford. “Police can't solve this on their own and the responsibility for preventing offences can't all be on the retailers.”

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 751 August / September 2017

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