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Artillery Row

Should we tackle shoplifters?

A call for civic action obscures state irresponsibility

See someone stealing from a shop? It’s time to step in, argues Chris Philp, Minister of State for Crime, Policing and Fire. “The wider public do have the power of citizen’s arrest,” Mr Philp said at the Conservative Party Conference:

… and, where it’s safe to do so, I would encourage that to be used because if you do just let people walk in, take stuff and walk out without proper challenge, including potentially a physical challenge, then again it will just escalate.

Isn’t that the job of the police? Well, yes. But… “While I want the faster and better police response,” Mr Philp added, “The police can’t be everywhere all the time.”

Stepping in to prevent shoplifting is of course a noble and courageous thing to do. Shoplifting, after all, is not a victimless crime. The loss of inventory ends up being felt in terms of the loss of jobs and services. It also inspires such depressing measures as products being locked up and fitted with security tags — not just single malt whiskey but steak, coffee and cheese.

Still, there are a few things to say to qualify Mr Philp’s recommendation.

First, it would be easier to accept the point about the police if they were actually preventing and solving serious crimes instead of arresting people for praying outside abortion clinics, posting edgy jokes online, calling people lesbians et cetera. Granted, a lot of police officers are preventing and solving serious crimes. But they should be stopped from doing the other stuff before we hear about how overstretched they are.

It doesn’t help that half of police forces in England and Wales have fewer officers than they did when the Conservatives came to power. More police officers doesn’t necessarily mean fewer crimes — it might just mean more people being harassed over edgy jokes — but used properly they could make a valuable difference.

Second, it is impossible to know if it is “safe” to stop someone. How should we know if they have a knife or not? How should we know if they will resort to physical force? An usually clear-eyed article in the Guardian reported on a modest supermarket in Leeds where the manager and his staff had been threatened with “razors, knives, screwdrivers, needles and hammers”. Sometimes, shoplifters are little kids and feeble addicts. Sometimes, they are hardened criminals.

It’s not irrelevant, too, that people with enough of a sense of civic purpose to intervene are often old and frail. A 76-year-old man broke his ankle a couple of years ago trying to stop a young shoplifter fleeing a perfume store.

And how safe is one from legal repercussions? Officially, the law entitles one to use reasonable force. But in the smartphone age there is a serious risk of any incident going viral, and pressure being imposed on the authorities to hold people to account for using gratuitous — and quite possibly bigoted — violence in response to youthful hijinks. 

Thirdly, it is true that shoplifting is on the rise — but whose fault is that? No doubt it is driven by inflation — not because shoplifters are in general starving mums desperate to steal a loaf of bread to feed their children but because it makes it more attractive to buy products from people who steal products and then sell them on.

Shoplifters know they tend to face minimal repercussions. The government has been considering jail sentences for serial shoplifters — but some criminals have been known to commit the same offence up to fifty times before being put behind bars.

Admirable as it is to stop shoplifters, then, it would be outrageous if the state tried to lean on private citizens instead of doing its job. To intervene is to risk your life and your freedom. It’s easier to appreciate the value of this risk if you know that the cops are doing all they can and that the courts will do their part. Not so much if the police are out there arresting football fans for posting disrespectful memes and the thief will get off with a light tap on the wrist.

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