Tidal wave of crime
Judging by the recent spate of violent robberies and so-called ‘tiger kidnappings’ it seems the downturn spells more danger for retailers than mere attacks on their margin
11 February 2009 | 0
Headlines reading "Five man gang escapes with €1.2m following family kidnapping," are not something any retailer peruses lightly over breakfast.
But the reality is that such stories are not uncommon occurrences in the national news, particularly in recent months. However, does it simply make for a catchy soundbite to say that in times of economic hardship, crime is one of the few things to actually go up?
Unfortunately, the prognosis isn’t good. Late last year, Garda sources stated in The Irish Times that economic downturn would likely impact on crime in 2009.
Gardaí predicted that the consumption of cocaine could peak, as young men, who previously earned high wages in the construction sector, would now have much less disposable income for drugs. In turn however, a downturn in revenues for drug gangs, could lead to them turning to robberies of banks and cash-in-transit vans.
In fact, crime statistics recently published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) provide evidence that the economic downturn has already impacted on crime levels. Crimes recorded in the Republic overall increased by 5% over the past year, and in the 12 months to the end of September general burglaries rose 9.6% to 25,198 cases while general thefts were up 3.7% to 77,040. Robbery and hijacking increased 5.5% to 2,350 cases.
It is unfortunate then that Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern recently signalled new recruits to An Garda Siochana could be cut due to a gaping hole in the exchequer. Ahern indicated in January that previously announced plans to recruit 400 new gardaí annually will be reconsidered.
While in October’s budget it was announced recruits would be slashed from 1,000 to just 400, Ahern is unsure whether even this reduced recruitment is now feasible. Although 100 recruits entered Garda college in Templemore, Co.Tipperary in November, and Ahern said a "similar intake" was planned for February; beyond this numbers will depend on "wider Government policy on the public service."
However, retailers such as James Bolger, whose Co. Carlow convenience store was ram-raided and burgled in December have already expressed fears that while individual Garda officers are excellent, that the Government needs to provide more resources.
This is perhaps felt particularly keenly in rural areas, where village stations do not always have an officer present, particularly at night-time, meaning a 20 or 30 minute drive, or as one shop owner told ShelfLife, up to an hour long drive before gardaí arrive from the nearest town.
Liam O’Leary, who owns O’Leary’s Service Station in Bunclody, Co. Wexford, is one such retailer who believes current Garda resources are "far from sufficient." He has had to call gardaí several times in the past, most recently experiencing a break-in in December, when it took gardaí half an hour to arrive from the station. As staff were beaten up and stock taken, this is not quick enough," he says, adding that gardaí resources currently are "extremely limited."
For example, he says that there is no broadband internet at his local Bunclody station. "In this day and age, everyone has broadband. If they have any filing to do, they have to go up to Enniscorthy to do it because there is no broadband here." While individual gardaí are very good, the situation is "extremely frustrating."
"After the latest break-in there was saliva found at the shop which could potentially have had a DNA check. However the Superintendent told me there is no DNA database in Ireland. This is extremely frustrating and the Government needs to look at that."
Tony Clarke, manager of Conlon’s XL Stop n Shop in Omeath, Co. Louth has experienced similar frustration as a result of Omeath’s garda station not being manned on a permanent basis.
"We are on the border right next to Newry; we’re the last outpost before it," he says. "There was a station here in Omeath, but it was curtailed about 12 months ago and it is not manned on a constant basis. This isolates us, as the nearest station is in Dundalk. If gardaí are circulating, you could be lucky and have them arrive, but if not it would be a half an hour drive from Dundalk."
He adds: "We need to have a presence in the area. There would be drive-offs here from the forecourt, and we would be hit from both Newry and Dundalk in this respect. It is no good if gardai have to arrive from Dundalk, as the quicker they arrive, the more can be done to trace a drive-off."
However, Vincent Jennings, chief executive officer of the Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association (CSNA) says that conversely, in some cases a retailer in a smaller community may be better off than those in larger urban areas.
"A Garda officer may be more likely to keep them informed than if that retailer is just one out of a community of maybe 3,000 or 5,000 members."
Generally though, he believes gardaí have improved at keeping people informed in recent years.
"Things have improved substantially in terms of gardaí keeping the victim of crime informed about progress made. However if a uniformed Gard is dealing with this, because of their shift pattern, a person might make two or three calls and miss them. There therefore needs to be a case officer assigned; a sergeant in charge who can key into the system and give the victim info."
He adds: "Twenty-five years ago this sort of crime would have occurred at a bank or post office, but now these places have stronger security measures, and unfortunately convenience stores are considered the weaker link by criminals, and are viewed as more vulnerable, more lucrative and less well protected.
"People do seem to be getting more inventive in terms of crimes such as ram-raiding. The potential is there and certainly nobody can say they are immune."
Retailers have told ShelfLife moreover that one of the crimes that particularly worries them is "tiger" kidnapping robberies. While kidnapping and related offences actually fell 13% to 83 cases between September 2007 and September 2008, it is not surprising that this is the case.
The traumatic nature of these thefts makes them stand out. One such case is that of the director of cash-in-transit firm GSLS, Peter Nevins who was targeted by armed criminals in his Co. Kildare home.
The gang described by gardaí as "professional and calm," took Mrs Nevins and their daughter Annie hostage, while ordering Peter Nevins to remove cash from his work. Although gardaí knew the heist was underway, thieves made off with €1.2m, by giving Peter Nevins several locations to drive to, and not telling him the specific drop-off point until minutes beforehand.
White paper on crime
But, on the plus side, while Minister Ahern may be reducing future Garda intakes, it would be unfair to say he is not giving crime any consideration. Last month, he launched the first "White Paper on Crime."
This two-year public consultation process, in Ahern’s words, is set to "examine if new and better ways could be found to tackle the crime-related challenges facing the country." And it appears the Minister will be indefatigable in this pursuit; consulting not just community organisations, but public agencies, gardaí, social scientists, criminologists and members of the media.
And in a move not likely to curry favour with those seeking a hard-line approach, he has said he’s particularly interested in looking at restorative justice programmes and punishments that could form an alternative to imprisonment. He will also be examining the long-considered tagging of offenders, in order to free space in a prison system which he says is now full.
"Victimless crime" a misnomer
However Jennings is not of the same mind. "If a person has been convicted, who has engaged in menacing and threatening behaviour, then the Judge has a duty to ensure that it is a very considerable time before that person is out. This behaviour is hugely distressing to staff members and it is not right that they should see perpetrators on the street [not long afterwards]…These are life-changing traumas for the victims after all."
Currently, a kidnapping crime involving the use of a gun would carry an average sentence of 10 to 12 years, with the prisoner likely to serve two thirds of this. Seven to eight years would be a typical sentence for the possession of a gun in suspicious circumstances, while a robbery without conflict would carry a lower sentence of around six years.
However, sentencing is entirely at the court’s discretion, and is affected by various factors such as whether the defendant pleaded guilty, had previous convictions, and his attitude towards the crime.
Nevertheless, with cigarette smuggling predicted to cost the country more than €500m in lost revenue within a year, Jennings believes there should be a zero tolerance approach adopted towards even these so-called victimless crimes.
"Cigarette smuggling may be seen as a victimless crime, but in fact the revenues generated from this activity are used to fuel the importation of drugs, people and arms. Customs and excise powers need to be extended."
It would seem therefore that the recession and crime are indeed linked. However, the Belfast Chamber of Commerce together with the PSNI recently held a conference, following a spate of tiger robberies in the North, where some useful advice was given. Business people should not worry needlessly but adopt sensible precautions and need not be afraid of contacting police after the criminals have escaped; the "priority is always the safety of the victims."