NZ Herald | Crime groups targeting affluent areas

Shoplifting and anti-social criminal behaviour impacting retail businesses are increasing across Auckland town centres.

Newmarket, Parnell, Ponsonby and even Karangahape Rd are among the latest city fringe “hotspots” that have been tackling increased crime over the past six months.

Theft to order was “rampant” throughout the retail industry and largely the result of organised gangs actively targeting shops across the country, now increasingly stealing high-value items, including luxury goods, says Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford.

Organised shoplifting and stealing-to-order operations typically focused on a certain area for a while before moving on to the next as restrictions and security tightened up, he said.

Shoplifting costs the retail sector an estimated $1 billion each year.

Mark Knoff-Thomas, chief executive of the Newmarket Business Association, said Newmarket had experienced an increase in crime, including some violent crime, in recent months – but he said the upmarket retail district was not alone.

He put the trend towards increased crime down to “a lack of co-ordination between government agencies and police being left to mop everything up” following people being temporarily housed in motels in the area.

“Usually, shop theft is opportunistic and pretty fast and furious, but there’s an indicator that things are specifically being stolen to order; [things] that your average thief probably wouldn’t pick up,” Knoff-Thomas told the Herald.

“Historically, I’ve seen a lot of retailers who sell streetwear products being targeted more than others because of the value they can on-sell those sorts of products for on the black market. But now we’re seeing a shift more towards luxury things, which we haven’t seen before.”

Handbags and jewellery were now increasingly being targeted by thieves. There had been a number of instances of theft at retail sites straight after lockdown, he said.

Newmarket had a problem with unruly teenagers causing some mayhem for a while, and the Newmarket Business Association had been working with schools, parents and government agencies and police to control the situation.

“What Covid seems to have done is thrown everything up in the air. We have had quite a number of people placed near by Newmarket into emergency housing shelter, into some of the motels on Great South Road, and that’s caused an increase in numbers of people on the streets, which is something we’ve never seen before – there’s been a marked increase.

“I reached out to some of the agencies around that to express my concerns … we’ve had some good conversations with some of the agencies, but I think the problem seems to stem back to a central government level – there’s been a complete lack of co-ordination around what everyone is doing.”

Quarantine management had also put pressure on police resources, and the problem had now become a central government issue, Knoff-Thomas said.

He said the situation was jarring. “You feel incredibly human empathy for people who are in difficult situations … but there’s an element of public health and safety, and people need to be able to be safe and do their business.

“If some of these things aren’t dealt with rapidly they’re going to fester and get worse. The CBD have had lots of issues with street people in the past, and what we’re seeing is that problem getting incrementally worse in the CBD and spreading out to other parts of Auckland.”

Cheryl Adamson, general manager of Parnell Business Association, said Parnell had also experienced a significant increase in shoplifting and anti-social behaviour this year.

Incidents in the area were stemming from “the proliferation” of residents staying in “supported accommodation facilities” in Parnell via a range of organisations including the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Housing & Urban Development, State Housing (Kāinga Ora) and private charitable trusts.

She said 90 per cent of people in the facilities “were fine”, but 10 per cent were not and causing trouble.

“Unfortunately this has accelerated after the Covid lockdowns as several accommodation facilities welcome the income from government departments, plus there are more people in need of assistance,” Adamson said.

“What we’re calling for is a whole-government response. We understand that these facilities are there and understand that those people are working really hard to try and look after their own mandate and look after vulnerable people, but nobody is taking a bird’s eye view as to where they are located and how many are concentrated in one area,” Adamson said.

“It affects retailers, in the sense that they are concerned about locking up shops on their own and on the other hand you have the issue that these people are vulnerable. It’s a very hard one for us to deal with.”

K’Road Business Association chief executive Michael Richardson said the business associations in Auckland city were working together on initiatives around crime prevention and safety, in response to the increase in crime.

Karangahape Rd experienced a surge in shoplifting and crime under higher alert levels and between the lockdown in April and lockdown in August.

Richardson said he also believed this was linked to housing of vulnerable people, and gangs of shoplifters. “We did have some gangs of shoplifters who were coming in from outside the area and doing orchestrated shoplifting. But that seems to have subsided as well recently.”

Richardson said he would like to see more community policing in the area to address the issue.

“If people are going to be housed, we have been requesting that authorities provide housing support so people are not only housed by also supported, we’re also requesting more support around addiction and mental health, and more prevalence of community policing.”

Retail NZ’s Greg Harford said shoplifting and retail crime was “rampant” and “doesn’t appear to be getting any better”.

He said the membership organisation agreed that the government and police need to look at the issue and effective ways to manage it.

“We certainly think theft in the retail sector needs dedicated resourcing within the police to try and manage it. Part of the issue with it is that shop theft is often not seen as a significant crime,” Harford said.

“When we hear about people shoplifting, we often think about the child nicking the chocolate bar, but actually it is much more organised than that and much more costly for retailers and ultimately consumers as they are footing the bill for the losses that are incurred.”

Retail NZ said it would like to see more effective prosecution and penalties in place for petty theft out of shops because “what we see is people starting out with relatively low-level theft and then they graduate on to bigger, bolder and more significant activity”.

Harford said the organisation would like to see an infringement notice scheme that gave instant fines to those found to be shoplifting, similar to a traffic ticket, and then court hearings for reoccurring offenders.

NZ Herald 14 October 2020

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