Retailers have been crying out for more help with tackling crime. Could retail jails be the answer, or do they pose as many problems as they solve? Liz Morrell assesses the Government’s plans

Earlier this year, the Home Office floated an idea, immediately dubbed retail jails, as part of a series of measures to tackle crime in public places. The concept is part of a wider review of policing powers and aims to establish a number of short-term holding facilities (STHF), where low-level criminals such as shoplifters can be dealt with rather than having to be taken to the local police station.

The move followed a consultation paper on a review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 published in March, which, among other measures, proposed the use of STHFs in public areas, including shopping centres and town centres.

Under the proposals, STHFs would provide secure accommodation, but would not need to equate to the standard cell design. They would be supervised by a custody officer and would allow police to deal with a high volume of low-level offenders.

The suspect would be held until their identity was confirmed and the next course of action – a summons, postal charge, fixed penalty notice or some other punishment – was decided upon. Detainees could be held for a maximum of four hours, during which time fingerprinting, photographing and DNA sampling could take place.

The public consultation ended in May but according to a Home Office spokeswoman a review is still under way. A series of regional seminars on the PACE review will culminate in a national conference this month, at which the pros and cons will be debated. “The final consultation will be in spring 2008,” she added.

Retailers frequently complain about a lack of response from the police, so this proposal sounds like an ideal compromise. However, the British Retail Consortium (RBC) warns retailers that they must ensure they don’t end up babysitting criminals and doing the police’s job for them.

“These sort of in-store cells do have some potential, but there would have to be restrictions – for example, that police, not retail staff, are responsible and that they are only used for processing criminals and not as full-unit holding cells,” says a spokesman. “Under no circumstance should they be used as overflow cells.”

Nonetheless, he points out that there are distinct advantages. “It would improve the swiftness with which shoplifters and other troublemakers within retail are dealt with. It may also help develop a more cohesive relationship with the police,” he says.

It could also improve safety for both customers and staff, with low-level criminals being held in proper facilities rather than storage rooms, for instance.

However, the BRC spokesman added: “I don’t think retailers should have to pay for the fitting out of these cells. They are sacrificing floor space, which is about the most valuable thing they have got.”

Major signing

One retailer to sign up to the scheme is Selfridges. It has offered space within its Oxford Street store for an STHF following conversations with the police. “We have agreed, but nothing will be moving forward until next year,” confirms a spokesman for the retailer.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman says there have been “negotiations with a store in Oxford Street”. He adds: “There is a need to increase cell capacity and we are examining a number of options.”

Laurence King, a security specialist and managing director of ORIS Consulting, believes retailers have mixed feelings about the idea. “I’ve had a few conversations about this. Retailers say they would much rather shoplifters were dealt with properly by the police – in other words, taken into custody at the earliest opportunity,” he says. The thought of an STHF in shops and stores is not a popular idea.

“However, where shopping centre staff can work with police, there is a view that space could be made available – but that would have to be funded, upheld and maintained by the police,” he says.

Boots head of loss prevention Robert Jennings agrees. He says that, for practical reasons, the retailer would not be keen to house STHFs within its stores, but it would support the principle of such units within shopping centres.

“We would absolutely support anything that would help police deal with suspects. The downside is probably around the practicalities of managing it. For us, it would provide a solution when holding people on a retail premise is not ideal,” he says.

“It also forces a bit of a police presence among retailers and doesn’t tie up our staff at the police station – it keeps the problem contained.”

A more workable alternative?

Some centres are already working closely with the police and building full on-site police stations. Many, including the BRC, feel this is a better option.

Meadowhall has a police centre on site, run by the South Yorkshire Police and located in the car parking area. “Security at Meadowhall is discreet, but it is there if we need it,” says a spokeswoman. “We have had an on-site police station since 1996, which is manned by a sergeant and a team of six officers,” she says.

The police presence is low-key, with non-uniformed officers on patrol at all times, except during events such as the Christmas lights switch-on. “Their presence will be requested by security or, if they hear something is going on, they will go along anyway. They are also involved in training the security team,” the Meadowhall spokeswoman adds.

Similarly, Bluewater has had a police station on site since it opened in 1999. “It has four cells and a couple of detention rooms for juveniles that fit the Home Office criteria,” says North Kent Police chief inspector David Cooper, who is in charge of Bluewater policing. The station is manned by two sergeants, nine police officers and a police community support officer.

Fixed-penalty notice crimes are dealt with at the Bluewater facility, while more serious criminals, or those whose case is likely to take longer to process, are taken straight to Gravesend police station. “We have adapted working practices to free up the officers so they can get back to the mall,” says Cooper.

As at Meadowhall, the facility is housed in a self-contained building provided by Bluewater. However, policing is high-visibility. “We aim for police officers to be seen in the mall,” he adds.

Discussions have been held with staff at Bluewater about an additional room that would make things quicker and more effective, explains Cooper, but the conclusion was that the present system does its job.

So does he think STHFs will work? “They would be useful in certain situations and, if they save time and effort and allow us to process suspects more quickly, they should be used. However, officers do need facilities for computer access, photographing, DNA and fingerprinting,” he says.

He also warns that such facilities should only be used for non-aggressive detainees. “It would need to be secure. Most people are compliant when they are arrested, but I wouldn’t be looking at them for anything that involved violence,” he says.

Legal minefield

Whether STHFs are to get the go-ahead and whether they are a good idea is a debate that will rumble on. In July, the Home Office’s summary of responses to the PACE consultation raised a number of concerns – crucially that an STHF would not necessarily have the safeguards and protections offered by a police station.

The report stated: “Whilst it was recognised that STHFs would provide operational benefits and may result in a person spending significantly less time in detention, there were doubts that such a facility would provide the suspect with the same level of protections. It may simply be used as an alternative to designated police stations when their custody areas were full.”

Katherine Vickery, an associate with law firm Eversheds, also warns against the feasibility of the proposals. “I can see from a retailer’s perspective why it’s a good idea to tackle retail crime in this way. The problem is, when you put your lawyer’s hat on, it contradicts some of the principles of criminal justice,” she says.

Should STHFs come into force, security officers and staff will feel more confident about approaching shoplifters because they know the crime will be dealt with. However, Vickery goes on to warn that they could foster too much of a cavalier attitude among staff. “There is a danger they could make the retailer feel over-confident because the security guard will know they will be supported. Retailers need to ensure that every person they approach is with good justification,” she says.

She also questions whether such a measure is counterproductive. “Does it detract from the seriousness of the crime? For example, without a visit to the police station, people might not take it so seriously,” she warns.

Such a facility also makes the crime more associated with the store or shopping centre in which the STHF is housed – putting the retailer or shopping centre more at risk to possible litigation, such as for slander, she says.

Of course, the aim of STHFs is to reduce retail crime, but Vickery is sceptical about their potential effectiveness. “I’m not convinced it’s going to have a massive impact,” she says. “It’s an interesting idea and I can understand why people have put it forward, but I’m not sure it will solve the problem. It comes back to police resourcing. They are stronger as a unified body in one place than disparate in STHFs across the country,” she says.

Retail jails might not be the answer retailers have been looking for, but they are certainly a start.