Words by Ed King / Pics by Ed King and Studio Creativity
Erdington’s retailers are losing thousands every week as the “lawless” High Street is scourged by shoplifters, many of whom are repeat offenders known to local law enforcement.
“It’s every day,” tells Karen Leavy, store manager at Peacocks on Erdington High Street. “The ones that we know of it could be up to two or three times a day. Then there are one’s that we don’t know of, going to the back of the shop and detagging stock. They are an everyday occurrence as well.
“From 2019 up to last year it’s improved, but we’re still losing about £250 a day.”
Karen’s family have worked in retail for many years and are no strangers to shoplifters, or an underwhelming response from local police teams.
“I previously worked at the Peacocks in Stechford,” continued Karen, “and we had somebody who was shoplifting constantly. He went to court, got a slap on the hand, then he started coming into this store (Erdington) and doing it here.
“They can spit at us, they can kick out at us, they can call us all the names under the sun, but we can’t do anything to them. And he’s literally got away with thousands of pounds worth of stuff.
“I’d given the name to the police, and I’ve never heard anything about it since. My mum worked in the this store many years ago and she got punched full force in the face by a shoplifter, and nothing was done about that.”
Since 2010, policing budgets across the West Midlands have been slashed by Government cuts, with the region losing a reported £175m and 2000 police officers – around 25% of those in active service, and over 50% allocated to community policing.
In a recent meeting organised by the Erdington Business Improvement District (EBID), at the request of the Erdington MP Paulette Hamilton, Sargeant Simon Wheeler encouraged local retailers to report every crime to get more officers allocated to the area.
But many local shops still struggle. Karen continues: “I’ve given the information to the police, but it means I’m off the shop floor… I can be on the phone for 45mins to an hour trying to get through.
“One person off that shop floor could allow three of four shoplifters in the shop. I physically can’t do it; I literally can’t leave the shop floor.”
Even for retailers with dedicated shop security the battle is still steeply uphill. At the other end of the High Street, the Coop supermarket is just as plagued by shoplifters as Peacocks, suffering the same pattern in repeat offenders.
Coop manager Ben Hall told Erdington Local: “We haven’t got police presence on the High Street and that’s just enticing criminal behaviour. We get a lot of shoplifters in here and I think it’s rather lawless on the High Street at the moment.
“There was a shoplifter who came in over the space of a week and a half, and stole about £500 worth of bottles of spirits.
“Finally, we caught the man in action, stealing, and we detained him and rang the police. Martin (security guard) went through all the correct procedures, logged it with the police and got a crime reference number, and burnt off all the CCTV footage.
“Then the policeman came and said there was nothing they could do.
“We understand how hard it is for the police, but my staff come in and work their socks off – they go above and beyond for the business. The police should be doing the same thing.”
Like the Coop and Peacocks, to many retailers more police presence on Erdington High Street seems to be the answer. But in the shadow of austerity and with a city to patrol, the argument continues over available resources.
And stuck in the middle is Erdington Street Warden, John Lynch – employed by the EBID, who also provide a radio system for local shops to warn each other of offenders. Having worked on Erdington High Street for years, John is a familiar faced deterrent to many shoplifters in the area.
“It’s got to the point where shops have stopped reporting thefts because they know nothing will come back from it,” tells John, who keeps receiving calls through his radio.
“Like with Peacocks, there was one guy who was robbing them every Sunday – they knew his name, they’ve got CCTV, they reported it, but they’ve never heard anything back to this day.
“Then we had a member of staff who was assaulted in Farmfoods, who was punched in the face. They knew the offender; they knew his name. The man who was assaulted has never heard anything back about that at all.
“The police say people aren’t reporting crime, but they are reporting crimes – they’re constantly reporting crimes, and all they get is a crime reference number, it’s logged, and they never hear anything after that.
“I know the police are busy, but they should focus on the more serious crimes on the High Street,” continues John. “I’m getting complaints on a daily basis about all the drug dealers outside Iceland, so that needs to get looked into.
“And when you’re talking about assault, large thefts, and continuous thefts, those people do need to be dealt with as they’re causing a major problem.”
John has also been the victim of assault, with one man breaking a restraining order to come back to Erdington High Street to steal – having only been out of prison for one week, after serving time for previously assaulting John and a police officer.
“I reported it to the police,” tells John, “the burglary offence and the breach of the restraining order… and to this day I’ve heard nothing back. The store’s heard nothing; I’ve heard nothing.
“They had CCTV footage. All the evidence was there, somebody said they would come and take a statement, but I heard nothing more about it. This was around October last year.”
But despite the imbalance of crime and punishment, there is still a communal desire to see significant change – with a ransacked police force and beleaguered community ultimately wanting the same thing. Law and order.
Plus, existing local legislation such as the Public Space Protection Order (PSBO) can be used to great effect.
Erdington Local recently witnessed officers PC Stiles and PC Bird deescalate a potentially violent clash, using the threat of a fine through the PSBO to remove an aggressive woman from the High Street.
As the offender stormed off, she shouted back at the officers who had successfully moved her on: “that’s why I don’t like coming here.”
Many feel regular communication and information sharing between police, the Street Warden, and the retail community would also go a long way – helping to send a message of ‘no tolerance’ to crime on the High Street.
As Ben at the Coop was quick to add, after highlighting the day to day issues that face his staff, his store, and the High Street at large: “I don’t want to seem like I’m just picking on the police.
“Albin (security) got assaulted by a shoplifter, and the police arrived within seconds and dealt with it fantastically. There also an officer called Dave, and he’s brilliant – I can’t sing his praises high enough.
“But if we can work together and get better police presence on the High Street… and it’s not just for the Coop, it’s for the whole High Street.
“We need to work together.”