Police officers sent to only one in five shoplifting offences despite record number of retail thefts

Police officers with handcuffed suspect
Police officers with handcuffed suspect

Police forces are failing to attend four out of five calls to shoplifting offences, data obtained by The Telegraph shows.

The proportion of shoplifting offences where police forces send an officer has fallen from 36 per cent in 2019 to just 19.7 per cent in 2023, according to the figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws.

National data last week showed shoplifting offences have risen by more than 30 per cent in a year to a record 1,300 a day but only one in seven are being solved.

The number of shoplifting offences reported to police jumped from 304,459 in the year to Sept 2022 to 402,482 in the year to Sept 2023, a rise of 32.2 per cent. It is the first time on record that it has passed 400,000 in a year.

Harvey Redgrave, a former No 10 adviser and chief executive of crime consultancy Crest Advisory, said: “These figures confirm a worrying trend, which has seen the police less likely to respond to bread and butter crimes.

Most forces provided no data

“There is little point in politicians promising to toughen penalties for shoplifting if the police aren’t able to get past first base, which is attending the scene of the crime.”

Most forces contacted by The Telegraph under Freedom of Information laws failed to provide data when asked whether officers attended reports of shoplifting.

Of the six that responded, Leicestershire showed the worst figures, with officers attending just 11.6 per cent of reported offences.

That compared with 26.9 per cent in Merseyside, the best force, though its response was down from 35.5 per cent in 2019.

In North Wales, just 13.6 per cent of shoplifting offences were attended by a police officer, down from 26.4 per cent in 2019.

In South Yorkshire, one of the biggest urban forces, the figure was down from 38.7 per cent in 2019 to 17.7 per cent last year.

Durham logged the biggest fall, from 77.9 per cent in 2019 to 22.2 per cent last year.

Staffordshire remained relatively constant at 29.8 per cent in 2019 and 26.3 per cent last year.

Rick Muir, director of the Police Foundation think tank, said: “These figures show that the police have tended to deprioritise retail crime in recent years, passing responsibility on to shopkeepers and supermarkets to retrieve evidence and only rarely pursuing cases.

“This was in the context of a shortage of officers and rising demand in other areas.  Now officer numbers have increased, there is more capacity to refocus on this problem.”

Many shoplifters never attend court

The shoplifting surge has been blamed on the cost of living crisis but in recent years, police forces have also stopped attending reports of routine shop theft, and will only send an officer to investigate if there has been a threat of violence against a member of staff.

Even if shoplifters are caught, a change in the law in 2014 means those charged with the theft of goods below £200 no longer have to attend court, and often escape with a small fine or an out of court disposal.

As a result, many shopkeepers claim they have been left at the mercy of persistent thieves who act with virtual impunity without fear of arrest.

Under an agreement announced last October police will attend shoplifting incidents if there is violence against a store worker, a suspected thief is detained or officers are needed to secure evidence. Police chiefs said it was “not realistic” for officers to respond to every shoplifting incident.

The police action plan will instead encourage retailers to send in CCTV pictures of all shoplifting suspects, which officers will check against the police national database’s 20 million images using facial recognition technology.

Ministers claim this will “exponentially” increase the chances of catching shoplifters and identifying prolific offenders who will be “specially targeted”.

A spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said: ““Retail crime can have a significant impact on victims which is why we are committed to doing all we can to reduce thefts and pursue offenders, especially those prolific and habitual offenders, who cause misery within the community.

“Organised crime can also be responsible for a proportion of these offences which is why we welcome the collaboration between retailers, police and crime commissioners and policing through Project Pegasus, which enhances our ability to identify and tackle the groups involved.

“In addition to this, we have also developed a Retail Crime Action plan which sets out clear guidelines for the response to retail crime, including following all reasonable lines of enquiry.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.