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Responses to the Problem of Theft in Cafés and Bars

Analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several may apply to your community's problem, but it is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do; carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those who can implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems).

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

In one form or another, crime reduction strategies are likely to build on one of the following techniques: target hardening, concealment or removal, access control, natural and formal surveillance, anonymity reduction, place manager utilization, guardianship extension, and benefit reduction or removal. These strategies naturally overlap. For example, by increasing natural surveillance, guardianship is likely to be enhanced.

In many cases, solutions will involve working with place managers or owners of high-risk venues. In such cases, readers are advised to consult Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 6, Understanding Risky Facilities, which focuses on understanding risky facilities and how to work with place managers to reduce crime.

What follows should help you consider what might be appropriate in your area and help you identify some of the issues associated with implementing such interventions. In many cases, the responses discussed have not been subjected to rigorous evaluation, but are included to illustrate the range of tactics possible.

Specific Responses to Reduce Theft in Cafés and Bars

The intervention's effectiveness may depend on identifying and manipulating the aspects of the venue that are most likely to impede perpetrators' preferred Modus Operandi; therefore, it is important to carefully investigate these. For example, in a venue where snatch theft is prevalent, changing the venue layout to make escape routes less convenient to thieves may reduce offenses.§ In contrast, if most thefts are due to patrons leaving items unattended, the solution might be to improve secure storage facilities.

§ For an example of how layout can impact thefts that depend on quick and easy escape routes, see the Tesco case study (Design Council, 2003).

Appropriate responses will vary across different types of establishments. For example, coffee shops and fast food chains are quite different because of the likely variations in clientele and hours of operation. Moreover, the risk of victimization may vary by time of day even within the same type of facility. Different problems will require different solutions.

A further consideration is a venue's geographical context. Effectiveness may depend on whether the venue is isolated or within a larger entertainment district. For example, considering detection strategies, an offender may be more likely to linger in an entertainment district than in other areas.

Improving Opportunities for Secure but Convenient Storage

As discussed, the theft of property in cafés and bars often occurs when items are left unattended. This suggests that secure storage facilities are either inadequate or inconvenient. In this case, the provision of convenient secure storage facilities may help reduce theft.

Many different types of secure storage exist, but they should be tailored to the particular environment. To illustrate, cloakrooms are useful and provide high levels of security in clubs or bars with a dance floor. However, in coffee shops where customers may spend only 10 minutes drinking coffee, cloakrooms would likely be underused and inconvenient and, therefore, cost-ineffective. Examples of storage solutions have been identified by the Design Against Crime Research Centre at Central Saint Martins College, London (DACRC) and include (also see Appendix B):

1. Providing anti-theft furniture. Where customer turnover is high, using furniture designed for crime prevention may be cost effective and practical. A number of examples of anti-theft furniture exist. Those below were commissioned as part of a design project at the Design Against Crime Research Centre (DACRC). For each design—the range reflecting the need to have different types of designs for different types of venues—the anti-theft feature is integral. For example, a chair§ shown at both ends of the figure allows customers to secure their bags off the floor enhancing their role as capable guardians. The chair designs are intended to be attractive and to reduce opportunities for theft.

Examples of
anti-theft furniture

Examples of anti-theft furniture (Source www.inthebag.org.uk)

§ Designed by Jackie Piper, Marcus Willcocks, and Lorraine Gamman.

2. Providing retro-fitted secure storage. Facilities that already have furniture should consider installing to tables and chairs retro-fitted bag clips, on which customers can hang their bags. When positioned near customer seating, these may enhance natural guardianship and secure bags. In many venues throughout the UK, commercially available clips can be fitted to tables and chairs. However, these clips are underused by customers25 often because clips are installed out of sight or are breakable (or appear to be), which could damage bags. Some clips fit only certain types of bags; hence the needs of typical victims should be considered (often this means designs that accommodate women's handbags). Thus, if used, careful consideration should be given to which design to install and how to publicize them.

The DACRC is currently testing new designs and ways to increase customer use. Following is one new design, along with an image of a publicity approach.

Example of a clip that can be attached underneath tables to provide customers with the
opportunity to secure their bags

An example of a clip that can be attached underneath tables to provide customers with the opportunity to secure their bags. Grippa (Source: DACRC, London)


Major coffee shop chains and fast food outlets have shown interest in design solutions such as bag clips and anti-theft furniture, but, at the time of writing, are not yet using them.

3. Providing lockers. Lockers are an alternative method for storing customers' valuable items. Keys may be provided for free or for a small deposit, or combination locks may be used. Lockers should be located in areas that staff can observe to reduce the likelihood of thieves tampering with them.

Careful consideration should be given to publicizing anti-theft furniture. The challenge is to raise awareness of storage facilities so they are used but not raise the fear of crime unnecessarily. A risk in publicizing anti-theft furniture is that if patrons use the furniture but theft still occurs, victims may pursue legal action against venues for providing ineffective security.

An alternative approach is to publicize furniture with an emphasis on other issues, such as health and safety. For instance, place managers could encourage, or require, customers to keep their bags off the floor. According to the American Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970)26 (see also the U.K. Health and Safety at Work Act 197427), it is the employer's duty to ensure employees, as well as customers, are protected from health and safety hazards. Bags on the floor can be a trip hazard; hence an argument could be made that bags should be kept off the floor.§

§ In some ski resorts, customers are asked to keep bags off the floor so they aren't dampened by melting snow. In restaurants in Mexico, customers are sometimes invited to store bags on a bag tree next to the table. The degree to which such measures reduce theft is unknown.

An example of an alternative table clip

Examples of alternative table clips. Grippa (Source: DACRC, London)

Registration, Recovery, and Removing Benefits

Registering CRAVED items such as cell phones could help prevent theft by making it easier to identify stolen property and return recovered items to rightful owners. This may deter thieves as registered items would be more difficult to dispose of, and, with registered cell phones, inoperable if stolen.§

§ The effectiveness of such schemes is unknown, but car registration has been mandatory in most countries for some time, so a consideration of its effectiveness may be instructive. In a review, Webb (2005) concludes that registration schemes' potential impacts on crime have been hampered by problems that include database inaccuracies and inadequate enforcement. It is possible that other registration schemes could experience similar problems. Important to this kind of scheme are coverage and continuity. If records are not maintained or coverage is limited, then such schemes are unlikely to have positive impacts.

4. Providing online registration programs linked to police. One existing scheme implemented in the United Kingdom and United States is Immobilize (www.immobilize.net). This is a free service that encourages owners to register details of their cell phones and other CRAVED goods. Cell phone owners must register their phone's make and model and its International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. The latter allows the phone to be blocked if it is stolen, rendering it unusable§§ (although this can be circumvented through reprogramming28). When registered items are lost or stolen, registered owners can inform Immobilize, which means police and other agencies can use the database to identify stolen goods. For a small fee ($2.99 at the time of writing; visit www.checkmend.com/us/), owners may also search the database to check that secondhand goods they wish to purchase are legitimately owned by the seller.

§§ Blocked phones can be reprogrammed for use. However, police can detect unblocked phones (visit www.immobilize.net).

According to Immobilize, in the United Kingdom, information collected assists in more than 250 cases each week. As with all property registration schemes, the effectiveness of the scheme depends on subscription levels; if few people register property, success will be limited. It is therefore essential to heavily publicize such schemes, if adopted.

5. Sending text bombs to stolen phones. A tactic that has been used in Holland and will be used in Australia involves repeatedly sending messages (text bombs) to stolen handsets rendering them unusable.29 The effectiveness of this type of intervention has not been evaluated. Moreover, the cost of implementing this type of scheme should be considered. If cell phone network service providers support the initiative, costs may be minimal. Otherwise, the cost of sending the messages may outweigh potential benefits.

6. Providing traditional property marking. The rationale of this scheme is that if desirable goods are marked and registered, thieves will be deterred from stealing them, and would experience difficulties selling them if stolen. This type of scheme may differ from the Immobilize registration scheme because the property is often overtly marked (which Immobilize does not require). Despite their popularity, the effectiveness of property marking schemes is unknown, and research suggests that any positive effects may be better attributed to the scheme's publicity rather than the property marking itself.30 If a market disruption approach is implemented with the goal of hindering the disposal of stolen goods, crime reduction agencies such as the police need to work closely with store owners. They should implement any existing local ordinances that require stores to establish proof of ownership for used goods they purchase, and they should encourage stores to publicize their involvement in the scheme.31, § The success of such schemes will, of course, be a function of how many secondhand goods stores and pawn shops participate, how many people mark their property, and how quickly updated lists of stolen goods are distributed to participating stores.

§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 57, Stolen Goods Markets, for further information.

7. Educating victims about the rapid cancellation of credit and debit cards. When thefts are reported, the opportunity exists to educate victims about the risks of further crimes such as identity theft. As part of a project conducted by the authors and the Metropolitan Police in London (U.K.), victims who reported thefts in participating bars or at local police stations were given a leaflet that explained how to protect themselves from a range of crimes (e.g., credit card fraud) and listed relevant phone numbers (e.g., credit card companies). The aim was to empower victims to take swift action rather than simply raise their fear of crime. If victims' keys are stolen, it is wise to provide advice about how to replace their locks.

Raising Awareness of Risk and Personal Solutions

8. Publicizing the use of safer storage by customers. To encourage customers to secure their bags in a series of bars in London (U.K.), the Safer Southwark Partnership provided bag clips under bar tables and publicized their existence using "talking signs." Placed in the ladies' restrooms, the signs are triggered by motion sensors and convey the following message: "This is a message on behalf of Safer Southwark Partnership: we hope you are having a good evening; please, however, take care of your bag." No formal evaluation of the scheme exists, but some feedback suggests positive impacts. The use of talking signs requires careful consideration. For instance, the signs may require continued maintenance, and they may annoy customers if they are constantly activated.

Because victims are likely to be younger, it may also be useful to reinforce messages about personal responsibility for safety in areas such as college campuses. Publicity may be used to encourage those at risk to store property more responsibly and to take simple measures such as zipping up or locking bags.

9. Promoting personal security measures. There are a number of products available designed to enable patrons to better secure valuable goods in risky environments, some of which are discussed below and an extensive review of which is available at www.inthebag.org.uk. As part of a campaign to reduce theft and robbery and to promote the use of this type of product, British Transport Police recently gave away a range of anti-theft products.32

of anti-theft bags.

Examples of anti-theft bags. These designs are made of hard materials to prevent slashing and incorporate other design features such as having an inward facing zip to prevent dipping. Grippa (Source: DACRC, London)

Lanyards are another way to secure personal items such as cell phones and laptops. Secured to valuable items, an audible alarm is activated if someone attempts to steal them (low-tech solutions exist). Educating the public about the availability of such products may be useful if common perpetrator techniques are likely to be disrupted by their use. It might be particularly effective to promote products that appeal to women if they are the primary victims.

An example of a lanyard

Example of a lanyard. Source: DACRC, London

Other examples include personal table clips that customers can carry with them for use at any location, and solutions that aim to camouflage or conceal valuable items such as laptops. Although police agencies are unlikely to distribute or endorse these products, educating the public about their existence may be helpful.

example of a portable bag clip that attaches to tables

Example of a portable bag clip that attaches to tables. Source: www.inthebag.org.uk

Increasing Guardianship and Surveillance

10. Improving natural surveillance. Increasing the visibility of theft in cafés and bars is possible by improving natural surveillance, which can be achieved by considering crime prevention in the design of new cafés and bars or by retro-fitting solutions to address identified problems. A study of the effectiveness of security in convenience stores suggests that impact is greater where a store's internal configuration facilitates unobstructed surveillance.33 § Although the influence of internal layout on the risk of theft in cafés and bars is unknown, it is worth considering in any analysis of the problem. Points to consider include:

§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 49, Robbery of Convenience Stores, for further information.

  • Staff should have an uninterrupted view of the establishment from the service counter or bar area. Avoid obstructions such as unnecessary space dividers or corridors leading to restrooms. It may also useful to raise the service area, giving staff a better view.
  • Furniture placement is important. For instance, locating tables too close to doors might encourage snatch thefts.
  • Policies can help change behavior. For example, a bar with table service should have less customer movement than one without.
  • Additional lighting at the entrance and at restrooms preserves ambience while providing increased visibility.
  • A facility's internal layout influences the type of movement that would appear legitimate to patrons and staff. Some features can create excuses for thieves to look for property to steal (e.g., a path to the restrooms that passes tables).
  • The number of entrances and exits may affect crime risk. Two or more entry points provide multiple escape routes and exits for staff to observe. Moreover, where venues span two or more floors, there may be different risks between floors.

The central point is that if offenders are more likely to be seen (or perceive they will), they may be discouraged from undertaking thefts. In fact, actual intervention by staff or customers may be unnecessary as long as offenders' perceptions are influenced by the layout.34

11. Using CCTV. Depending on the specific problem, the use of CCTV may be beneficial. However, it may not reduce crime if it requires constant monitoring and staff are unable to do this. Where CCTV is used successfully, convictions should be publicized to ensure that offenders' perceptions of risk are affected.35, §

§ See Response Guide No. 4, Video Surveillance of Public Places, for more information.

12. Employing door staff in bars. Properly trained door staff can keep a watchful eye on people entering and exiting bars and act as a deterrent to would-be thieves. This could be an expensive option unless crime is a substantial problem or door staff can fulfill other useful roles.

Licensing, Management, and Staffing

13. Training staff. Also key to improving surveillance is staff training. Staff who can act as place managers need to know what is expected of them. Staff may consider crime prevention to be beyond their responsibility36 or be unaware of how they might contribute to the problem and solution.§§ Where policies (or lack of them) contribute to the problem of theft, successful and sustained solutions may require their revision or an approach that leverages the action of place managers and staff.§§§ Simple measures would include training staff to be vigilant and to encourage customers to secure property on their person or to use anti-theft furniture. Leverage from the police, in terms of publicizing venues with good or bad track records, could provide an incentive for establishments to involve staff in crime prevention.

§§ See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 6, Understanding Risky Facilities, for more information.

§§§ Even staff that collect and clean glasses can play a role.

14. Requiring theft prevention through licensing. Making certain crime prevention practices mandatory (such as training new staff in security procedures) prior to license provision could be a useful leverage tactic. Anything in the manager's economic interest could be effective; for example, increasing customers' comfort and safety or avoiding liability. In a 'Café Watch' case study in Westminster (U.K.), which aimed to combat violence and other problems in cafés, ways that interested parties could work together were explored, along with the statutory powers available to them. As part of the response, targeted inspections by Crime Prevention Officers and Environmental Health Enforcement Officers were carried out using Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance as a baseline. The study concluded that there was a 50 percent reduction in crime in participating premises within a year.37

Other related strategies can be found in Problem-Specific Guide No. 1, Assaults in and Around Bars. This guide also discusses licensing laws in more detail.

15. Screening staff. Although we have not focused on theft by employees, it is worth mentioning that internal theft could be a cause for concern, particularly in establishments where the labor pool is highly transient and skill level requirements are minimal. This may ultimately lead to hiring correctional clients and other high-risk employees. In such situations, it may be advisable to use staff screening or a background check to ensure employees are unlikely to contribute to an internal theft problem. Research on the effectiveness of pre-screening is mixed. One study demonstrated a 40 percent shrinkage loss reduction for five major retail chains two years after pre-screening tests were used. However, outcomes appear to depend on the business type, and this strategy raises concerns about ethics and staff morale.38

Detection Strategies

16. Undertaking sting operations. Sting operations, in which bags are left unattended but are watched covertly by plain-clothed police officers, may be used.§ A complementary approach would be to place a concealed GPS transmitter in unattended bags.§§ A change in the position of the GPS transmitter would signal the bag is moving. In addition to helping to detect crimes in progress, analysis of where thieves go post-offense may provide useful intelligence on, for example, potential locations of stolen goods markets. Although there is no formal evidence of the effectiveness of such strategies or published examples of their use, the Metropolitan Police (London, U.K.) have used this type of strategy.

§ See Response Guide No. 6, Sting Operations, for further information.

§§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 52, Bicycle Theft, for further information.

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