An example of CCTV images of a criminal is displayed on a slide during a media event at a Thames Valley Police training facility in Sulhamstead near Reading on August 24, 2023 (Photo by Justin TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Police forces need to ensure that the implementation of facial recognition technology leads to arrests and convictions of shoplifters, the head of independent retailers has told Eastern Eye.
The Metropolitan Police last Thursday (19) announced that it will use facial recognition technology to tackle London’s worst shoplifters by matching CCTV stills to mugshots, a process that takes just 60 seconds.
Around 50,000 shoplifting incidents were reported to the Met last year. However, this is estimated to be between five per cent and 10 per cent of the offences that are actually committed.
Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association, said retailers don’t think the police will support them and are, therefore, are not reporting shoplifting incidents taking place in their stores.
“Retailers have, over the years, lost confidence in reporting crimes because there’s simply no response or nothing done about it. They’ve just accepted what’s happened and got on with their lives,” Goodacre told Eastern Eye.
A Freedom of Information request by British retailer the Co-op showed the police did not respond to 71 per cent of serious retail crimes reported.
In the six months to June 2023, Co-op recorded almost 1,000 incidents a day of shoplifting and anti-social behaviour, a 35 per cent increase year-on-year. It has warned that some local stores risk becoming no-go areas.
Goodacre said if the facial recognition technology isn’t used to make a real impact in terms of arrests and convictions, it would lead to further deterioration of the relationship between retailers and the police.
“I had a meeting last month where retailers were telling me they were waiting over two hours to report a crime, they just don’t have the time to do that and then to think they get no response,” said Goodacre.
“It’s right to use better technology – if it’s available. Importantly, though, it’s what the police do with the evidence they capture.
“There needs to be some real deterrent to these people in the first place. The follow up after identifying shoplifters needs to be just as strong as the effort it takes to use facial recognition to identify them.”
Retail crime is responsible for the loss of an estimated £1.9bn in revenue in the UK each year, according to the Met Police. One out of every 10 Londoners works in retail and more than 1,000 incidents of abuse and violence against employees are reported annually, the police said.
Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley said facial recognition would be a “game changer” – with a pilot scheme already showing positive outcomes.
The Met Police asked 12 retailers to provide images of 30 of the worst offenders who steal from their shops in a pilot of the new software.
These images were compared against the police’s custody shots and of 302 images submitted, 149 came up as positive matches. These are now being investigated further with a view to building criminal cases.
Police minister Chris Philp recently proposed adding passport photos to the police database to facilitate CCTV matching.
“We’re working with shops across the capital to target and track down criminals in a way we never have before,” said Rowley.
“We’re pushing the boundaries and using innovation and technology to rapidly identify criminals.
“The results we’ve seen so far are game-changing. The use of facial recognition in this way could revolutionise how we investigate and solve crime.”
There are 48,590 convenience stores in the UK, with 44 per cent being owned by British Asian, according to the ACS.
Goodacre called for a shift in mindset from authorities who continue to regard shoplifting as a minor offence and this, he said, has resulted in criminals becoming emboldened.
Organised crime gangs are now wiping out entire shelves of expensive goods with the intention to sell it on, Goodacre said.
“It’s a low-risk, high-reward crime because criminals don’t even have to break into businesses. They can walk in and just walk out with goods and no one is doing anything about it. We’ve created a problem through a lack of prioritisation,” Goodacre said.
Rowley revealed the use of facial recognition technology has shown most suspects are career criminals who are involved in serious crime.
“Through this tactic we’re not only improving how we protect shops and support the business community, we’re also stepping further forward in identifying and tracking down serious criminals and protecting all of London’s communities,” he said.
“The scale of business crime in London is huge. To be successful we have to be precise in our approach and this is a really promising step forward.”
Lindsey Chiswick, director of intelligence for the Met Police and national policing lead on facial recognition, insisted the software was reliable after concerns were raised over accuracy in relation to images of suspects from ethnic minorities.
Rob Blackie, Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate, labelled the rollout as “worrying” as he claimed the technology “has a high error rate for ethnic minorities”.
He added: “There is a real danger that many black Londoners will be wrongly stopped, and that this will further undermine trust in the police.”
However, Chiswick said the algorithm has been independently tested by the National Physical Laboratory.
She said: “Facial recognition technology, which is able to match faces after the event, has actually been around for quite a few years.
“What’s changed and what is improving all the time, and in the last few years with real speed, is the accuracy of the algorithm. And that’s the real game changer here.
“With this technology, it’s an algorithm that we’ve independently tested through the National Physical Laboratory so we have assurance it’s 100 per cent accurate when it comes to retrospective usage, and we understand how it works.”
Retailers employ facial recognition tech to combat theft
Some retailers have already started to use facial recognition technology themselves in order to combat the level of theft going on in their stores, writes Sarwar Alam.
Dave Hiscutt is the operations manager of five retail stores, including five two in Weymouth and one in Southampton.
He has installed Facewatch – a facial recognition retail security software that sends its subscribers an immediate alert as soon as a person of interest enters their premises.
“Crime kept elevating. In our town centre store, the situation was becoming violent. We had to do something and that’s when we contacted Facewatch,” Hiscutt told Eastern Eye.
“Now when someone comes and tries to steal and/or gets abusive with the staff, we log their face against the incident statement, explaining exactly what’s happened.
“The next time when the same person comes in, Facewatch sends an alert, at which point, we then go up to them and politely ask them to leave explaining they are not welcome.”
As the offenders are now repeatedly being turned away at the point of entry, they have also reduced targeting Hiscutt’s stores altogether, he said.
Hiscutt’s stores are also equipped with StaffSafe, a communicative intervention security solution through which trained operators keep an eye on store through CCTV.
If needed, the operators speak through speakers to take control of threatening and potentially dangerous situations in real time and alert emergency services where relevant.
Combining the two systems, Hiscutt explained how he has been able to deter prolific shoplifters from his store.
“In some abusive cases, a StaffSafe person from its monitoring centre in Scotland, who can see our store through our cameras, interacts with the person, who is causing the problem, with warnings like ‘your actions are completely unacceptable. Please leave the store now’,” Hiscutt explained, adding that “they will also call 999 for us and liaise with the police on our behalf”, if needed.
For extreme cases involving weapons or violent robbery, there are “silent alarms” that go off on wrist bands of the staff so that they can act accordingly and save themselves.
“The two systems – side by side – have reduced the level of conflict that we were experiencing in which in turn makes the staff feel happier,” he said, adding that some escalations still happen, but StaffSafe helps to bring things under control.