'Police did nothing when there was a fight in my shop'

By Dearbail Jordan
Business reporter, BBC News

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Convenience store owner Amit PuntambekarImage source, Convenience Store
Image caption,
Convenience store owner Amit Puntambekar feels he is being let down by the police

Almost a year ago, shop owner Amit Puntambekar, 28, found himself stuck between two customers, trying to stop one from hitting the other.

The row had started outside his village store but carried on inside, ending in the older, taller, customer punching the teenage target of his anger.

Mr Puntambekar managed to evict the aggressor and help the younger man, promising to report it to the police.

He did so - but nearly 12 months later, nothing has happened.

Mr Puntambekar is one of thousands of shop owners and workers who feel they are being let down by the police, according to a new report on violence against retailers by the Home Affairs Committee.

The report has found that violence against retail employees has escalated over the past five years, increasing further through the pandemic.

Only essential retailers have been allowed to stay open during periods of lockdown, but both small and larger firms gave evidence to the committee, detailing extensive verbal and physical abuse.

Supermarkets Morrisons and Sainsbury's told MPs their staff had been threatened with knives, firearms and even syringes.

The Home Affairs Committee is now asking the government to consult on a standalone law that would make it a criminal offence to assault retail workers in England and Wales.

Image source, Getty Images

It said that the problem is "becoming endemic in British society and the policing response is failing to match the scale of the problem".

It cites a survey of shop workers conducted by the Association of Convenience Stores, which found that only one in five who reported incidents "were satisfied with the response from the police".

"When the police fail to attend or follow-up serious incidents, it undermines trust and confidence in them, discourages reporting, and weakens the deterrent for repeat offenders," the report said.

Assistant commissioner Alistair Sutherland, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for business crime, said: "Individual forces will have different tactics available to them and will use crime prevention initiatives most suited to the issues they are facing.

"We take reports of all types of retail crime very seriously, particularly those involving violence, and will seek to prosecute anyone who breaks the law in this regard."

He added: "We recognise however, that there is more that we must do to encourage reporting and provide a better service and assurance to victims."

Crime and policing minister Kit Malthouse, said the government is putting 20,000 extra police officers into communities to cut crime, "including retail crime".

He added: "The Sentencing Council has set out guidelines that mean courts should be increasing sentences for assaults committed against those providing a service to the public, including shop workers."

'Nothing ever happened'

It is an issue that Mr Puntambekar is all too aware of: "We phoned the police. We had all the incident, we had the customer's licence plate. I spent hours with the police tracking what direction he was coming from."

"I sent them all the video evidence and nothing has ever happened."

Unfortunately, the parents of the young man who was assaulted now blame Mr Puntambekar.

He said: "I thought everything had proceeded fine [but] the parents no longer shop with us because they blame me for the incident and blame me for not following it up."

It has been compounded by the fact that Mr Puntambekar is not allowed to show the parents the CCTV video of what happened to their son, because of General Data Protection Regulation rules.

"So the parents, to this day, do not know what has happened to this poor lad because I can't legally show them the footage," he said.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problems that retailers are facing - industry group the British Retail Consortium says the number of violent incidents or abuse against shop workers between 2019 to 2020 rose by 7% to 455 attacks a day, compared to 424 a day during 2018 to 2019.

At one point in the winter, Mr Puntambekar said his shop was losing between £300 to £400 a week due to theft.

"The police view it as a 'soft crime' because when a theft happens there is no penalty to the state or the government," he said. "We will end up paying the liability for it."

As a shopkeeper, he says "you accept there is always going to be a level of shrinkage of theft", adding that "there's not many other businesses where you think "we going to lose £5,000 or £10,000 a year".

The National Federation of Retail Newsagents told the inquiry that they thought a "strong police response" to simple shop theft "might serve to stop future, more serious incidents, but it is here that the police response is weakest".

Marks and Spencer added that local police have "struggled to respond to reports of assaults" in their shops.

The company told the committee that as a result "colleagues have become less inclined to report assaults to the police, as they believe that there is 'no point' when it is likely no action will follow".

Media caption,
'I thought I was going to get stabbed,' says shop worker recalling robbery

The report also suggests it is "surprising that there is no mandatory process for recording crimes against retail workers as a specific group" within police force crime statistics and that there is a "much needed" drive for data on incidents.

The Home Affairs Committee is seeking a new standalone criminal offence that protects retail workers from violence and abuse in England and Wales - similar to that already passed by the Scottish government.

"A standalone offence for assault on emergency workers has produced promising early results in increasing prosecutions," said Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper.

"Violence and abuse towards shop workers must be treated with the same seriousness and those workers must be afforded similar protection in law."