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New police squad arrests dozens of the worst retail thieves

Sandra Conchie, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 1 Sep 2023, 7:09AM
Sergeant Sam Watson heads a new retail crime unit that is targeting repeat offenders. Photo / Alex Cairns
Sergeant Sam Watson heads a new retail crime unit that is targeting repeat offenders. Photo / Alex Cairns

New police squad arrests dozens of the worst retail thieves

Sandra Conchie, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 1 Sep 2023, 7:09AM

A new specialist police squad is targeting the worst retail thieves - and has prosecuted more than 50 in three weeks. 

The Retail Crime Unit is zeroing in on the most prolific retail crime offenders in the Western Bay of Plenty. It has already laid more than 400 charges and resulted in offenders going to prison. 

Some offenders were stealing goods to supply the black market. 

The full-time team, comprising a sergeant and five constables, is the first of its kind in the Western Bay and was put together after more than 5000 offences were reported to police last year. 

Senior Sergeant Scott Merritt, who came up with the idea, said the unit, headed by Sergeant Sam Watson, aimed to identify and target offenders causing the most harm to businesses. 

“The Retail Crime Unit focus is on a group of recidivist offenders committing a disproportionate amount of these reported offences and causing the most harm to Western Bay of Plenty businesses.” 

Merritt said the unit had charged 53 people aged over 18 and filed a total of 423 charges. Most offenders were locals. 

He said of the 423 charges, one offender accounted for 41 dishonesty offences. 

Those arrested had been charged with theft offences at retail outlets including shops, supermarkets, large pharmacies, service stations and chain clothing stores. 

Merritt said items stolen included food (particularly meat), clothing, footwear, fragrance products, makeup, health-care items, razors, and other items with a higher-dollar value - all estimated to be worth thousands of dollars. 

“Many of these offenders were well known to police for similar offending.” 

Police were pleased by the unit’s arrest strike rate, Merritt said. 

“But this is not about patting ourselves on the back. What it does, is confirm what we had already believed - that is, a small minority of people were committing the majority of these reported offences,’' he said. 

“It also highlights how big the issue is for our retailers out there.” 

He said the best part of the unit’s work was helping retailers with extra “prevention measures” and the team was spending time speaking to retailers in “high-risk” offender locations. 

“There are a variety of tools available to retailers, especially around CCTV security cameras and how that footage is shared among retailers and with the police.” 

Merrit said some people the team had charged had received custodial sentences because of their prior criminal history and it was anticipated others before the court may also do so. 

Watson said it was “exciting and rewarding” for the team to be able to tell victims that some offenders regularly targeting their stores were now off the streets. 

Inspector Zane Smith said the team’s target was offenders stealing items that police believed were easy to dispose of because there was a “ready market”. 

“The quantities of items stolen suggest those arrested were on-selling at least a portion of these items,’' he said. 

“Because this unit is focused on a particular crime type in a short period of time, the team have built up a lot of expertise and ability to identity these individuals,” he said. 

Smith said a good quality CCTV system and the right shop layout, including eliminating security black spots and not covering shop windows with promotional posters, were some key preventative actions. 

“This is about creating an environment where people have no realistic opportunity to hide what they are trying to do when they visit a store.” 

“We hope by targeting the right people we can deter them from committing further offences and the fear and risk of apprehension is also increased.” 

Pāpāmoa Plaza centre manager Anne Murphy applauded the move. 

Papamoa Plaza centre manager Anne Murphy. Photo / Alex Cairns

Papamoa Plaza centre manager Anne Murphy. Photo / Alex Cairns 

“I’m delighted that the police have adopted this strategy as the unit is definitely needed because these types of crimes are on the increase. 

“And from time to time we get small groups of people coming through the plaza stealing to order. 

“Some of this offending can be quite sporadic but it’s very disheartening for those business owners whose stores get regularly hit, which includes the Stirling Sports Papamoa store. 

She said some offenders were “quite blatant” despite knowing CCTV cameras were operating. 

“They show total disregard and disrespect for our retailers who are only trying to protect their livelihoods.” 

“We have an excellent relationship with our local police just down the road and excellent CCTV cameras, but significantly reducing the amount of retail crime happening across the district is a huge task. 

“Having a dedicated team of police focusing on doing that is fantastic news.” 

Stirling Sports Pāpāmoa owner Jarrad Marks said it was ”awesome” to hear about the police’s new approach. 

“It’s a huge problem for many businesses. Some offenders are getting quite crafty in the way they carry out their thefts, including two women from Rotorua who stole $200 worth of clothing a couple of weeks ago. 

After they left the store, security tags on the clothing were found in a changing room, he said. 

Marks said he believed the dedicated team would help deter many offenders. 

“Ninety-nine per cent of those who steal from the store are already known to the police and the response from the senior constable at Pāpāmoa station when we phone or text him is excellent,” he said. 

Marks said his business was also a victim of a ram raid in July last year and thanks to a grant under the Retail Crime Prevention Programme he was able to enhance the store’s security measures. 

Downtown Tauranga chairwoman Ash Gee also lauded the initiative. 

“Anything that assists retail businesses with some of these issues is highly positive and I think this is going to make the city centre feel more safe for our business owners and shoppers.” 

Greerton Village Mainstreet's manager Mahia Martelli. Photo / Supplied

Greerton Village Mainstreet's manager Mahia Martelli. Photo / Supplied 

Greerton Village Mainstreet manager Mahia Martelli said this sort of “targeted policing” seemed to be working from the data she had read and the number of arrests made. 

Martelli said she had been aware of some recent minor thefts in Greerton Village which was mainly food items and in one case alcohol and would be watching with interest how police dealt with those offenders. 

Retail NZ reports the financial impact of this type of offending is $1bn a year in losses. 

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