Nicholas Richards is a familiar face in the stores of London‘s West End. He’s a serial shoplifter.
One of the establishments he has been banned from because of his persistent offending is the flagship branch of Boots in Piccadilly. But here he is, captured on CCTV of that very store before the latest lockdown, brazenly helping himself to £170 worth of Gucci products from the fragrance counter.
Richards, in a fashionable black T-shirt and jeans, was caught red-handed by security officers from private police force My Local Bobby (MLB). They handcuffed him and waited for the real police to arrive, but they needn’t have bothered.
What happened when they turned up would have been hard to believe had the farce not been filmed and recorded on the body-worn cameras of the officers from MLB.
The two Metropolitan Police officers who attended the scene decided the offence was a ‘civil’ matter (it isn’t) and, after refusing to arrest Richards, simply released him even though they were fully aware of his notorious track record.
No matter. Shoplifting is one of a seemingly ever-growing range of crimes which have been decriminalised in all but name. Even serious offences, such as incidents of domestic violence, are not being investigated properly at the moment, a report by the charity Victim Support claimed this week.
Is it any surprise that public confidence in the police is being damaged?
Helping himself: Nicholas Richards takes Gucci perfumes in Boots. CCTV footage of Richards, a familiar face in the stores in London’s West End for being a shop lifter. He was caught red-handed by officers from private police force My Local Bobby (MLB), but when the police were called, they opted not to arrest him saying it was a civil matter
‘Just remember, don’t do any silly s*** all right,’ one of the policeman tells Richards before letting him go. ‘I don’t want to see you again — in the best possible way . . . so what’s going to happen now is you’re going to leave the store and that’s it.’
Richards responds by saying sorry: ‘Apologies guys, yeah’ — before implying Boots is to blame for leaving a cabinet with the perfume inside ‘wide open’.
A voice in the background can then be heard warning Richards: ‘Don’t come back here again.’
‘I promise I won’t,’ replies a grateful Richards who, it transpires, was in breach of a suspended sentence at the time (for a shoplifting in 2018). As he walks off, he turns round and says over his shoulder: ‘Thank you, see ya.’
Yes, this really did happen; not the crime of the century, admittedly. Nevertheless, such scenes are being repeated in high streets up and down the country because police are reluctant to prosecute so-called ‘minor offences.’
Richards knew this. Except the men behind My Local Bobby, former senior Scotland Yard officers who were providing security in the store, were so frustrated by the response of the police they took out a private prosecution against him.
Last week, more than 16 months and nine court appearances later, Richards was finally punished for his shoplifting spree. After pleading guilty to the Boots offence, he was ordered by Chatham magistrates to do six months community service, undergo 20 days of rehabilitation and pay £100 towards costs.
Caught: Private security officers from My Local Bobby apprehend Richards, put him in handcuffs and call the Metropolitan Police. Last week, more than 16 months and nine court appearances later, Richards was finally punished for his shoplifting spree
For a recidivist such as Richards, who had 25 convictions for 37 offences across two decades, the vast majority for shoplifting and theft but also wounding and drug charges, the punishment he has finally been given might seem lenient; no more than a slap on the wrist.
At least, however, he didn’t get away completely scot-free, which he would have done if it had been down to the policemen who waved him on his way back in July last year without so much as a caution, leaving him free to target other stores.
The officers themselves are not to blame; they were simply carrying out force policy; this is the world we live in, where shoplifting has been quietly but effectively decriminalised along with many other crimes.
The thin blue line, it is true, is being stretched ever thinner, with senior officers having to make brutal decisions about prioritising resources at a time of severe financial pressure.
In London, nearly half of all crime, 1,114 offences a day, reported by the public between January and October last year, including two-thirds of burglaries, were ‘screened out’ because of severe financial pressures, the Met admitted in a response to a recent Freedom of Information request.
It’s a similar picture in other parts of the country where budget cuts and reduced staffing levels mean ‘high-volume, low-harm’ offences are not being investigated.
Mind how you go: A police officer gives Richards a telling off in the perfume aisle of the store in Central London, falsely calling the crime a ‘civil’ matter, before sending him on his way
More serious crimes, however, are also being effectively decriminalised, it is now claimed. Victim Support says women suffering domestic abuse and harassment are being encouraged to take civil action because the backlog of criminal cases is at a record level due to the pandemic.
Example after example is cited of women being advised to seek non-molestation orders, obtained through the Family Court, rather than pursue criminal prosecutions.
One victim was given this advice despite the fact her house was broken into by an abusive partner.
Another woman who reported her partner’s coercive control and criminal damage — which included taking out the fuses in household appliances so she couldn’t use them and throwing ketchup over her new coat — was given similar guidance.
Police told a third woman, who was being stalked — an allegation supported by witnesses — they could not arrest the perpetrator as she didn’t have a non-molestation order in place. When she told the suspect to ‘f*** off and leave me alone’ in the street, he made a complaint to the police himself and she was warned she would be arrested if she swore at him again. She no longer calls the police.
The anecdotal evidence gathered by Victim Support seems to be borne out by the statistics. Applications for non-molestation orders were 24 per cent higher from April to June compared with the same period last year, according to Ministry of Justice figures.
‘Alarmingly, the charity’s report adds: ‘Some staff supporting victims and survivors of domestic abuse have shared that police action has been slow, with 999 domestic violence incidents not being attended for several hours, or non-responsive to incidents such as non-molestation orders allegedly being breached with no action.’
The MoJ says it has introduced measures to reduce the backlog of criminal cases, including recruiting 1,600 staff.
But Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) — the police watchdog — has warned that the public is increasingly not bothering to report certain types of crime that still impact on the victim.
As few as 1.3 per cent of thefts — which covers shoplifting — now result in a charge, according to Home Office data.
As few as 1.3 per cent of thefts — which covers shoplifting — now result in a charge, according to Home Office data. Pictured: The Home Office building, located in London
‘The police turn up and generally don’t take any formal enforcement action,’ said David McKelvey, a former detective chief inspector in the Met, the co-founder of My Local Bobby. ‘They don’t arrest or prosecute.’
So unless stores themselves, or private security firms on their behalf, pursue individuals like Nicholas Richards — which is a costly and time-consuming process — it seems there is no deterrent to shoplifting in this country.
Retailers know this, even if the public doesn’t, which is why Richards seemed unperturbed when he was stopped in Boots. TM Eye, the parent company of My Local Bobby which brought Richards to court, has since prosecuted another 40 shoplifters, with another 40 theft or shoplifting cases pending. Richards, though, was the first.
A manager at Boots, which was losing around £15,000 a week to shoplifting, provided a witness statement which highlighted the low morale among staff caused by the police turning a blind eye to crime. ‘We are currently suffering eight to ten offences per day,’ the manager revealed. ‘As a consequence of the level of thefts and occasional violence, my staff are demoralised and scared.’
Overall, shoplifting is estimated to cost the UK economy around £1.9 billion a year and pushes up the prices of everyday items: everyone suffers. But most forces no longer attend routine shop theft and usually only send an officer if there has been a threat of violence against a member of staff.
Even if culprits are caught, a change in the law in 2014 means anyone charged with the thefts of goods below £200 no longer has to attend court and often escapes with a small fine.
The Government said it would be reviewing the £200 threshold but has reminded the police that the law as it stands ‘does not constrain the ability of the police to arrest or prosecute someone in the way they feel is most appropriate.’
The impact shoplifting has on the retail sector and those who work in it should not be forgotten, the Government stressed.
Many shops, as the statement from the Boots manager illustrates, do feel they have been ‘forgotten’ and have become easy targets for persistent offenders like Richards to act with impunity.
‘There were over a million incidents of theft last year which has a huge impact on the retail business,’ said James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores. ‘We estimate that shop theft alone costs every store in the convenience sector an average of £1,670 a year.
Youcef Mokhtari, 42 from London and Tony Nash, 53 from London co-founded ‘My Local Bobby’ a private policing service available for patrolling neighbourhoods for a fee
It is a view shared by the British Retail Consortium, which has called for tougher measures to combat the ‘scourge of retail crime which requires ‘a stronger police response to criminal incidents,’ says chief executive Helen Dickinson, along with ‘new legislation to introduce tougher sentences.’
Metropolitan Police Federation chairman Ken Marsh described the rise of companies such as My Local Bobby as a ‘staggering indictment’ of the state of policing which is creating a ‘two-tier system’ between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ — between those who can afford to employ companies like MLB and those who can’t.
MLB is one of several firms offering such services but it is the first self-styled police force for hire.
Formed in 2016 by McKelvey, 57, and his partner Tony Nash, 55, an ex-Met commander, it provides cover for a number of stores in the West End as well as 24-hour patrols in affluent residential neighbourhoods in London and Essex such as Fitzrovia, Chelsea, Notting Hill, Woodford and Chigwell.
For a fee of £100 to £200 a month per household, the firm combats burglaries, vandalism and other anti-social behaviour.
Their ‘bobbies,’ who wear red vests and caps, are drawn largely from the ranks of former police officers and the military and are accredited with the Security Industry Authority.
They are not allowed to carry offensive weapons but are equipped with handcuffs and bodycam.
Private prosecutions — criminal cases initiated by an individual or organisation and not the Crown Prosecution Service — are handled by MLB’s parent company TM Eye and supported with CCTV footage, video confessions and witness statements put together by lawyers.
McKelvey says they have successfully prosecuted scores of criminals for a range of offences: ‘When I was a policeman we would never have thought twice about nicking a shoplifter. But police have the perception that shoplifting is a minor offence.
‘As a result stores have given up and don’t even bother calling the police any more. That is why we took action. It sent a very clear message that if you go near that particular store, you will be arrested and convicted.’
The thin blue line, it is true, is being stretched ever thinner, with senior officers having to make brutal decisions about prioritising resources at a time of severe financial pressure
A Met police spokesman says: ‘Individuals and businesses are entitled to employ security companies to provide additional safety for themselves or their premises — this is not a new development.
‘When information is provided to the police, this will be assessed and acted on accordingly.
‘Officers have to decide the most appropriate course of action for the given circumstances and this can range from arrest to issuing a community resolution.’
The frustration in the retail sector is epitomised by Beales department store, in Bournemouth, which has been forced to let scores of thieves go because of the police’s ‘disregard to shoplifting’ — a state of affairs which CEO Tony Brown has called ‘shocking’.
‘This is proper crime — this isn’t someone stealing pick-and-mix,’ he insists. ‘If police search [suspects’] homes, they will have copious amounts of stock that they have stolen from everywhere else.’
Behind this crime spree are individuals like Nicholas Richards, of course.
Shoplifting fell dramatically at the Boots store in Piccadilly from around £15,000 worth of stolen goods a week to £1,000 only because of the ‘deterrent effect’ of the private prosecution of Richards, says McKelvey.
‘The evidence [against him] was so overwhelming,’ said McKelvey.
‘We were frustrated that the police officers chose to release him despite his history of criminality. It is unacceptable that stores such as Boots are being let down in this way.’
The evidence, just to recap, included being caught with stolen items, in this case bottles of Gucci perfume, footage of him actually stealing the goods on in-store CCTV, and admitting the crime in front of the MLB officer’s bodycam.
And who knows what other evidence is mounting, against stalkers, peeping toms and violent husbands, which goes unreported by worn-down victims, who know all too well that a call to the police will do nothing to keep them safe?
So, once lockdown is over and the shops open once again, and households are mingling again, what on earth is the deterrent for crime?
Anyone affected by crime can access Victim Support’s services regardless of whether the police are involved. Call their free 24/7 Supportline on 0808 16 89 111 or get in touch via the website: victimsupport.org.uk.