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‘Tis the season for spending time with family and friends and the inevitable yuletide spree of shopping and gift-giving. Suburban malls and high-street stores are jammed in the lead-up to the holidays, as Torontonians make a final festive retail push before taking a breather and preparing for Boxing Week bargain bonanzas.

Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when busy retailers must contend with wide-scale theft. Statistics show that Canadian businesses lose more than $3 billion annually to crime, including both internal (e.g., employee) and external shoplifting that eats into profits and compromises retailers’ competitiveness. Rather than tackling the problem head-on, a new Toronto Police Service pilot project is moving in a very different direction.

Toronto Police Service introduces Stop Theft 

First-time shoplifters caught pilfering items within the boundaries of the city’s 51 and 52 divisions will no longer be prosecuted under the six-month Stop Theft program, an initiative that will permit private security and theft-prevention guards to effectively catch and release shoplifters after documenting their personal details, then providing them to officers at one of the two divisions participating in the program. The Toronto Police Service’s aim is to free police resources to deal with higher-priority calls.

Non-violent shoplifters who are 18 years of age or older with identification and who are accused of stealing merchandise totaling less than $1,000 are eligible for release. Police will still attend the scene if requested and reserve the right to lay charges by summons in the future, depending on the circumstances.

“It is estimated that retailers lose more than $8 million a day to store theft. What is more worrisome, however, is that today’s thieves are becoming increasingly sophisticated, therefore posing an even greater risk to the health and safety of the Canadian public.”

“What we’ve been trying to do through the modernization process is make sure that our police officers are where the public needs them the most,” Meaghan Gray, acting director of corporate communications for the Toronto Police Service, told the Toronto Star. “And maybe responding to … shoplifting calls — that can be held just as efficiently by a theft prevention officer partnered with us over the phone — allows us to reassign those officers to more pressing calls for service.”

While the efforts of police to more effectively utilize their officers’ time is laudable, the bigger challenge for retailers can be summed up in a statement last year from Diane J. Brisebois, President, and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada:

Removing a theft deterrent

Indeed, the major challenge with the Stop Theft program is that it assumes that shoplifting is limited to individuals such as thrill-seeking teens and those with mental health issues. The reality is that organized crime groups are behind much of the bottom-line killing losses plaguing retailers at all levels. Products such as razor blades and baby formula—the latter used to mask drug trafficking, or sold for a hefty profit on the black market—are two products that have long been a prime retail target for organized crime, making retail loss prevention services more worthwhile.

Holiday Retail Theft shoplifting - hire retail security
Retail loss prevention services are more needed now than ever.

A program such as this removes the most important deterrent to shoplifting—immediate arrest and the threat of significant prosecution. It will be an especially major problem in less-prosperous areas already dealing with high rates of both minor and major crimes.

Retailers will need to continue to invest more in loss-prevention tactics, including the use of civil demand recovery letters, which allow them to sue alleged shoplifters in civil court to recoup the cost of a stolen or damaged item, not to mention costs relating to security patrol and enforcement. It’s safe to assume that overwhelmed police won’t have the time to follow up with an accused shoplifter after an incident, even if the person has a criminal record.

Why? Cash-strapped, budget-conscious police services simply lack the time and money to continue to pursue low-level crimes as they once did. The unfortunate reality is that retailers will pay the price and will need to pursue punitive litigation in an effort to deter would-be thieves—itself a potentially costly process.

Programs such as Stop Theft are designed to modernize the response to some crimes, but in doing so they tend to sow chaos and return us to a time when the low-level crime was rampant. Now, unfortunately, shopkeepers need to be more vigilant than ever, treating every customer as a potential shoplifter, which is always bad for business.

Toronto police introduce new security alarm response rules

Toronto police announced a major change to their burglar alarm response policy. Specifically, they made it clear that they would no longer respond to alarms unless there was verified proof that some form of criminal activity or a threat to an individual was occurring at the time of the notification.

Up to that point, police would always send a car to any commercial or residential property where an alarm was sounded. Better to be safe than sorry, the thinking went. According to their revised guidelines, police will now only respond to an alarm if a threat can be verified by an audio or video device, there are multiple zone activations in effect—which are typical in the case of a break-and-enter with multiple burglars at the crime scene—or they have an eyewitness on the scene calling in the incident. This could include a private security guard.

Toronto police will still attend verifiable alarm calls

Why the change? Police data from 2016 show that 97 percent of security system-related calls were false alarms. “When a panic alarm button is hit, we will absolutely attend,” a police spokesperson told media “Also, if we get evidence there has been a burglary, we will also attend that call too.” Really? It’s reassuring to know that the police will attend actual crimes. Needless to say, this new policy raises several red flags to those of us in the security field. The most obvious being that some break-ins could foreseeably go unchecked because authorities deem them to be false alarms, or because their slow response allows criminals to come and go without the risk of apprehension.

The challenge for commercial property owners is that investigating issues such as potential break-ins or vandalism often takes a back seat to other, more serious crimes.

To help prevent those false alarms, police are advising homeowners and commercial property managers to update key holder information, ensure regular alarm system maintenance, change alarm batteries frequently, keep alarms free of dust and debris and educate residents, tenants, and employees on the system operation protocols.

While the policy change is understandable—having police respond to a plethora of false alarms is, of course, costly and inefficient use of resources—it discounts the possibility that actual crimes may be in progress, with verification coming only when it’s too late. Criminals, being a clever lot, will undoubtedly use these new rules to their advantage if they know the police aren’t going to respond when a standalone alarm is sounded.

Robust security is more important than ever

Most importantly, this underscores the need to maintain 24/7 protection for commercial or residential properties. That means having an active security presence and state-of-the-art monitoring systems—or, at the very least, one of those two crucial components—in place to build out a comprehensive security strategy to protect your assets. With these new rules governing what, exactly, justifies a live police response, investing inadequate security is no longer an option for commercial property or residential property owners, and that includes condominium boards.

As such, most organizations will need to re-evaluate their current alarm systems. Is it enough, or do they now need new cameras? Do those cameras need to be monitored by a security service in order to verify alarm issues? Manufacturers, integrators, monitoring centres, and the end-users need to answer these questions or risk being left behind by these new requirements.

Wincon robot security guard ideal for retail loss prevention services at malls and commercial buildings.
Wincon robot security guard ideal for retail loss prevention services at malls and commercial buildings.

Expect traditional police duties to be increasingly outsourced

Another notable aspect of development is that it highlights an emerging trend across North America: the outsourcing of police duties to private security providers. An important line in the Toronto Police Service’s policy change was the one noting that eyewitness verification of a security breach would warrant an on-site visit from the police. The fact that the eyewitness could be a security guard means that police understand—and perhaps even welcome—the involvement of private security firms.

We can expect to see an even greater willingness on the part of the authorities to accept third-party security help in the years ahead as police budgets are slashed or frozen, and resources are redirected to priority areas. The challenge for commercial property owners is that investigating issues such as potential break-ins or vandalism—although obviously well within the mandate of local police services—often takes a back seat to the prevention or investigation of violent crimes or other, more serious offenses.

Choosing the right security provider is key

Now, it’s important to remember that not only does your organization need security help to keep its assets and people safe, but it also needs to partner with the right security provider, one that takes an integrated approach and provides effective training to its staff. The trend of downloading security duties to private companies shines a spotlight on the processes and procedures that security firms develop and follow. How well trained are their staff? What are their employee retention rates? Is their HR department fronted by a proverbial revolving door as people come and go looking for a job rather than a career? The maturity and sophistication of firms across our industry is now under greater scrutiny than ever before.

So, too, are service providers’ embrace of technology. Everything from drones to patrol robots to leading-edge software and video camera systems are the kind of tools that will become increasingly important in the years ahead. Criminals are always getting smarter. They will find ways to circumvent even the most advanced electronics. Is your security provider equipped to keep pace?

In one sense the Toronto Police Service’s alarm response policy change has a silver lining. Over time, a greater reliance on reliable private security providers will help push out the fringe players from our industry whose inadequate services put clients at greater risk. Because when the police won’t respond without knowing that a crime is in progress, there’s simply too much at stake to put your commercial or residential property and assets in the hands of an unprofessional security firm.

Is your business interested in retail loss prevention services?

Fill out our quote form and enjoy a consultation with us to learn about your retail security options.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO
Wincon Security 

A long weekend of shootings that saw 17 people injured in 14 separate incidents over the recent civic holiday sent chills across our city. Even Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders was quick to acknowledge both the unusually high wounded toll, the sheer number of security-related incidents and the brazenness with which the alleged assailants acted.

Residents wonder when it will all end, and how to stay safe in the meantime.

Three suspects have since been arrested in connection with several of the shootings. Saunders told reporters that additional resources would be deployed “in specific places that we think will help deter and reduce the gun violence that’s occurring in the city right now.”

Gun crime on the rise

What we need to keep in perspective—as was the case after the van attack in North York last year that saw 10 people killed when a disturbed young man ran down people at random on Yonge Street—is that Toronto is still a remarkably safe city. Our crime rate is low and the threat of becoming a victim of violent crime is scant.

Still, gun violence has been on the rise in recent years and that requires a certain level of vigilance, particularly in vulnerable or lower-income areas where gangs and other troublesome actors tend to spend most of their time.

According to police statistics, Toronto experienced two and a half times more shootings in 2018 than 2014—a shocking increase that should give us all pause.

Why has it taken a rise in gun crime and the death of a child to empower a public agency to protect its residents?

New security measures

One of the recent deaths—that of a 16-year-old—came in a Toronto Community Housing (TCH) complex in the city’s north end. According to a CBC report, that prompted a promise for action on the part of the housing agency:

“… TCH chief executive officer Kevin Marshman [promised] to do more to address what some residents have decried as a woeful lack of security at their buildings.

Starting in September, said Marshman, full-time security officers will be stationed in the Jane and Fallstaff community. Also coming, he said, is enhanced lighting around the buildings and cameras on the roadways coming in and out of the complex that can capture license plates.

Marshman added that TCH also hopes to conduct a community safety audit — a joint effort with police and residents to physically walk around the properties to identify gaps in security and what needs to be done to make things safer.”

While we can all applaud TCH’s commitment to taking action, a bigger question remains unanswered: Why weren’t these measures implemented years ago? Why has it taken a rise in gun crime and the death of a child to empower a public agency to protect its residents?

A trend towards enhanced security 

That question may never be fully answered, but Marshman’s statements are likely indicative of a new trend that we will—and likely should—see emerging across our city: a stronger security presence, particularly in vulnerable communities.

Police tape - security lessons from Torontos van attack
Increased safety will require private security partners.

We need more foot patrols to protect private and public spaces, and in many cases that will require the involvement of private security partners given the already stretched resources of the Toronto Police Service. It will likely mean more camera surveillance using artificial intelligence and facial recognition software to recognize bad actors before or after they commit crimes. We need better lighting to protect paths and parks, and greater community cooperation similar to the walk-safe programs that university campuses have implemented and maintained for years with widespread success.

In the wake of the recent spate of violence, many of Canada’s mayors are calling for either an all-out handgun ban or stronger restrictions on handgun ownership—a move that many chiefs of police across the country also support. This would undoubtedly help address the issue, but it may not be enough. As police budgets are cut in many jurisdictions, those crucial eyes and ears on the ground are lost. Again, this is where private security firms and technology can help fill the gap. But employing their services requires an increased budgetary spend and a willingness to stand behind important policy changes.

Will our leaders at the federal, provincial and municipal levels heed the call? Or will they make relatively tiny security commitments that seem meaningful, but fail to create a long-term impact in our communities?

Balancing security with civil liberties will be a challenge 

In the end, we want to keep our city free and comfortable and avoid it taking on the feel of a surveillance state. But we also want to ensure that all Torontonians feel safe to go about their business. Exactly how we accomplish the goal remains to be seen, but we can rest assured that it will take creative, innovative thinking to curb the latest ‘summer of the gun’ and restore a greater sense of safety and security to Canada’s largest city.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO

Retail theft is not only pervasive but can be extremely difficult to control. Just ask the LCBO, Ontario’s liquor retailer, which is in the midst of a crime spree-related crisis plaguing key outlets across the Greater Toronto Area—a problem that could, at least in part, be of its own making.

When the Toronto Star first reported on the phenomenon of brazen daylight thefts at LCBO locations, many of us in the retail security industry shrugged. The incidents were no surprise given the lack of in-store security at most of the organization’s stores. According to statistics unearthed by the Star, LCBO outlets have been targeted more than 9,000 times since 2014. That’s a staggeringly high number, but the data are even more harrowing, according to the Star’s reporting:

… the most recent data in the Star’s possession shows LCBOs accounted for nearly half of shoplifting incidents, with liquor heists happening more than three times as often as they did in 2014.

“In 2014, police data shows, LCBO outlets accounted for just over a tenth of the shoplifting incidents at the top 100 most frequently targeted addresses of shoplifting incidents in Toronto. By 2017, it was a third. And halfway through 2018, the most recent data in the Star’s possession shows LCBOs accounted for nearly half of shoplifting incidents, with liquor heists happening more than three times as often as they did in 2014.”

The problem has become so bad that school principals have reportedly complained to police that, in some cases, their minor students are shoplifting liquor ‘with impunity.’ What’s to blame for this dramatic increase in theft?

First, the LCBO has a strict no-intervention policy in place regarding in-store pilfering. Staff members are forbidden from intervening when a robbery occurs. This has resulted in bizarre (and in the case of some stores, almost daily) examples of LCBO workers literally being forced to stand by and watch as thieves walk into their stores with duffel bags or backpacks, which they promptly fill with merchandise, before making an exit. Some are so bold as to take their time and leave the targeted store at their leisure.

Aside from the cost to the provincial treasury of losing millions of dollars in merchandise each year to preventable theft, the costs are much greater. LCBO employees report regularly being threatened by thieves—in some cases with needles or knives—and being forced to deal with smashed bottles left in the wake of these brazen robberies. Demoralized and frightened, these staffers have taken to whistleblowing through the media to make their voices heard. How long, they wonder, before a customer or employee gets seriously hurt?

The bigger challenge is a certain apathy at the C-suite level across the LCBO, not to mention on the part of the Toronto Police Service, whose experimentation with no-response retail theft policies sends a clear message to criminals: LCBO stores are open for illicit business. With some products such as rare scotches priced at several hundred (or thousands) dollars, liquor stores are prime, easy targets. LCBO leadership has only recently announced its intention to add a stronger retail security presence at some GTA stores. Hopefully, the move has the desired operational impact.

LCBO shoplifting spree - alcohol on store shelves
Staff are forbidden from intervening when a robbery occurs, increasing the need for retail security.

To be clear, ‘No touch/No chase’ policies are not exclusive to the LCBO. They have been embraced by risk- and liability-weary organizations for years, and for good reason. Staff are not trained police or retail security professionals. They risk personal injury—or worse—in making ill-advised, if admirable, attempts to stop a theft in progress. These policies, in other words, exist for a reason.

But it’s incumbent upon upper management at retail organizations such as the LCBO to take action and ensure their stores are protected at all times. That often means taking a holistic, integrated approach, introducing everything from the latest in high-definition digital cameras with facial-recognition software to spot known malfeasants before they can pilfer goods, to having a security presence on-site at all times in higher-risk areas—and those aren’t limited to economically-disadvantaged communities. The LCBO data shows that shoplifting is rampant even in more prosperous neighbourhoods.

Having experienced, professional guards on-site sends a message to would-be shoplifters that their activities won’t be tolerated. And yes, deterrence does work. Will it necessarily stop attempted robberies altogether? Obviously not, but criminals will think twice before trying to lift a rare bottle of Glenlivet. More so if they know that police will arrive on scene if theft is in progress or has just occurred.

Ignoring brick-and-mortar Toronto retail security needs are common in the digital era when an increasing percentage of retailers’ budgets are being directed to preventing fast-growing challenges such as cyber theft and fraud. But as long as business is being conducted in the offline world, organizations need to be prepared to protect their property and their people.

Addressing liquor store shoplifting requires the right mix of retail security tactics

Being a retail employee shouldn’t come with constant fears over one’s personal safety and security. But that’s the reality for provincial liquor store employees in parts of Manitoba, in particular those employed at outlets in higher-risk neighbourhoods of Winnipeg.

In recent months the provincially-run liquor stores have seen a rash of brazen robberies in broad daylight. Now, the incidents have escalated with three employees facing unprovoked assaults in recent weeks, and one receiving acute medical attention in hospital as a result. Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries has closed one store in response and has taken various other measures in an effort to deter theft.

The incidents mirror those of the past two years across a handful of LCBO outlets in Toronto. In both cases, liquor boards have instructed employees not to take action to prevent shoplifting. That’s created bizarre scenes where employees and customers are literally left to stand and watch as duffel bag-toting thieves walk into a store, take their fill, and leave without resistance. The union representing liquor store employees in Ontario has criticized the LCBO’s retail security strategy and staff training, as well as the retailer’s claim that shoplifting costs the organization less than $6 million a year in pilfered items—a figure the union says is grossly underestimated.

“This situation is out of control, not just in our liquor marts, but also in private retail stores.”

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Gov. & General Employees Union

To be clear, the workplace policy preventing store employees from intervening is the right one. There have been far too many examples—as in the Winnipeg case—of employees being threatened, injured, or having unknown liquids thrown in their direction. Taking a chance with people’s lives or safety simply to reduce the odds of having a few bottles of vodka shoplifted isn’t worth the risk.

In response, business leaders have called for action to address the issue.

“This situation is out of control, not just in our liquor marts, but also in private retail stores,” Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees union, said in a written statement, as reported in the National Post

“We need an urgent summit of law enforcement, addictions and social services, public and private retailers, unions, and the provincial government.”

Various other crime-prevention methods have been floated, including requiring customers to fill out forms requesting products that would then be retrieved from a storeroom, a la the Consumers Distributing stores of our youth. That idea was quickly rejected, likely by executives who understand that experiential retail security in Toronto is the future, not one that mirrors a Soviet-era supermarket shopping experience circa the Cold War. The cost of completely reconfiguring store designs to allow for controlled distribution would also be cost-prohibitive.

So, why the uptick in liquor store crime? While poverty and addiction in certain regions is undoubtedly a major contributing factor, basic ease of execution is what attracts petty criminals such as the ones who boldly fill bags with easily traded merchandise, which in many cases is flipped to fund various personal addictions. Surveillance cameras are always a useful crime-prevention tool, but in this case—and, again, with the level of crime in question—they tend to have little impact because they only catch thieves after the fact. Many of the individuals in question have nothing to lose and little fear of going to jail.

Wine bottles at LCBO retail security toronto
Retail security isn’t a one-time endeavour.

The best approach is to have a strong, in-store security guard presence—and, in particularly risk-prone neighbourhoods, potentially even off-duty police officers—to send a clear message to thieves that they will be apprehended. These guards need to be properly trained in citizens’ arrest tactics to catch and hold thieves until police can make it to the scene.

Some Manitoba stores have also implemented bottle locks, which can work. The problem is that individuals who want to crack these theft-prevention devices will always find a way. Still, that extra step may cause them to think twice and try stealing something else instead. Or it could merely create a time-consuming inconvenience. Either way, the locks are not 100 percent effective.

Preventing robbers from entering stores in the first place is one of the most effective strategies. While requesting identification at store entrances can create a negative experience for law-abiding customers, it does send a clear message to would-be thieves that their behaviour will not be tolerated. Managing the optics and other logistical challenges such as long line-ups during the peak holiday season or during long weekends, however, can be daunting. It’s by no means the perfect solution.

Another option is to keep high-value liquor under lock and key, requiring staff assistance for a purchase to be made. While this helps protect luxury brands, it does little to deter the smash-and-grab of low- to mid-range bottles.

Overall, the key to preventing liquor store retail theft is to customize and combine tactics, while maintaining a careful balance between employee safety, customer experience, and store performance, and profitability. That means tapping the latest technology and using tried-and-true retail security methods such as a live guard presence, as well as entrance controls when appropriate, to deter criminals before they can act. It also takes perseverance, sustained investment, and an acknowledgment that security isn’t a one-time endeavour. Thieves are clever and need to understand that an organization is serious about security before they’ll move on to another target.

Otherwise, situations such as the one in Manitoba will continue, putting employee safety at risk.

DOES YOUR TORONTO BUSINESS NEED RETAIL SECURITY?

FILL OUT OUR QUOTE FORM AND ENJOY A CONSULTATION WITH US TO LEARN ABOUT YOUR RETAIL SECURITY OPTIONS.

Winston Stewart, President & CEO Wincon Security