The issue of appropriate force against violent customers is a thorny retail issue. Joanne Ellul looks at where store staff should draw the line

When a punch is flying towards your face, working out how much force is “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to restrain your assailant could be tricky.

But if security guards or shopfloor staff find themselves faced with this predicament, the law requires they make such a judgment and justify it in court if necessary. In September 2010, a security guard working at Debenhams in Swansea was faced with justifying the force he used in court after being charged with the manslaughter of a shoplifter.

This is not an isolated incident. In October last year, preliminary results from Usdaw’s annual survey of violence at work showed that in the previous 12 months, 6% of shop workers were subjected to violent attack, 37% were threatened with harm and 70% had suffered verbal abuse.

Force of habit

Stopping combative situations in stores from escalating is a challenge that security guards and shopfloor staff both face. Reliance Security national solutions director for retail/logistics Graham Allison says: “Verbal abuse is a big problem right now - it has to be controlled day-to-day through shop staff using conflict management training.”

When a verbal situation does get out of control, both the store worker and perpetrator are at risk. A business protection manager of a department store retailer, who did not want to be named, recounts a recent incident: “A guard was grabbed hold of by the tie by someone who he stopped. The guard went to grab the tie back and the perpetrator fell backwards through the door.”

The challenge for retailers is adhering to the woolly line about what constitutes “reasonable force”, defined by the law, to restrain someone. Cardinal security group managing director Diane Johnson says: “The law isn’t clear on what is reasonable force. Some retailers allow their guards to use handcuffs and some don’t.”

Restrain, detain and arrest?

The trick for retailers to deal with this difficulty of adherence is controlling the level to which guards are trained. The business protection manager explains: “We teach two detain holds - involving the hands and arms, not the neck and legs. It is not worth the injury to that person to use other detaining methods. In front of a jury, a broken leg over stealing a baseball cap doesn’t look good.”

Industry guidelines released last month by security industry skills body Skills for Security entitled Physical Intervention: Reducing Risk warns against excessive training. It states: “Training must be relevant to and commensurate with the risks faced.”

Other boundaries include keeping to the store perimeters and referring incidents onto the police wherever necessary. The department store retailer says: “We don’t advise guards to run through shops or after them outside. They can run into other people. Keeping it in stores means it is recorded on CCTV. Report the crime to the police and let them deal with it,” he says.

The decision to arrest or not is an issue that divides retailers. The department store retailer changed its security staffing to shift away from a focus on arrest just over a year ago. Previously,

it had one or two plain-clothed detectives in stores, but now no store detectives focused on in-store arrests. Instead, the retailer gives security guards the power to arrest and its focus is on prevention through increasing the visibility of security staff. “We didn’t get value for money for the focus on arrest that detectives have, because arrest is rare.” Instead, store security staff have been smartened up and now wear ear pieces and suits, he adds.

The persona security officers possess is important for their role. Cardinal security matches the skill set of the officers to the environment. “We have senior managers who hand pick officers for stores,” Johnson says. She adds that intelligent officers can diffuse a situation, appropriate for occasions when stores are open late on council estates and gangs of youths come in.

Confrontations in store can quickly escalate to violence, and it risks both damaging the retailer’s reputation and increasing the risk of litigation. Taking care to ensure that security guards have the correct training and follow correct policies is vital if negative publicity and costly law suits are to be avoided.

Top Tips

Security guards should:

Ensure the safety of staff and customers first

Deter first, arrest later

Ensure detention area is accessible, safe and clean

Arrest as a last resort with police present

Security guards should not:

Arrest first without attempting to deter

Approach anyone with a weapon

Leave the store to chase after a perpetrator

Attempt to deal with a violent situation by themselves