The use of body cameras to protect retail staff, properties and the general public

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The effectiveness of body cameras as law enforcement technology is still subject to debate. When it comes to store security personnel, however, they could well be the next big thing.

Walmart’s U.K. supermarket chain Asda began outfitting security guards with body cameras last year in an effort to protect them from abuse and attack from the public.

“There’s no doubt that body-worn cameras do have a deterrent effect, and we are very supportive of such measures aimed at reducing violence, threats and abuse at work,” says Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, headquartered in Manchester, England.

USDAW notes recent reports from the British Retail Consortium, Association of Convenience Stores and police on the increase of abuse directed toward retail staff. “Worryingly, 56 percent of shopworkers who experience violence, threats or abuse at work do not report the incident to their employer, including 22 percent who were physically attacked,” the union says.

Further, USDAW notes that a survey of store associates shows a 25 percent increase in violence, with more than 230 assaults on U.K. retail employees every day.

Citing a 30 percent increase in police-recorded shoplifting over the past decade, Lillis says, “The idea that shoplifting is a victimless crime is wrong. Theft from shops is often a trigger for violence, threats and abuse against shop workers.”

EVIDENCE-GATHERING USES

One camera vendor sees little difference between the use of body cameras in law enforcement and in retail security.

“The basic use cases are the same across both markets,” says Richie McBride, co-founder and chief executive of Edesix Ltd., a body-worn camera manufacturer in Edinburgh, Scotland. The aim of body-worn cameras is to reduce violence toward the wearer of the camera, provide evidence of interaction/actions taken to corroborate or oppose any accusations and give an unbiased and fair view of an incident, interaction or job.

“Where static CCTV is a great tool, it regularly has no audio and is also, as the name suggests, static,” says McBride, whose firm counts both Asda and Waitrose supermarket chains among its customers.

Body cameras offer additional support and evidence-gathering because they capture audio and video from the perspective of the retail employee. “If the goods are indeed found on the person of the accused after they have exited the store, then it is captured on cameras,” McBride says.

The use of body cameras by U.S. businesses, including retailers, hospitals and sports and entertainment venues, is being discussed; so far there has not been much movement toward its adoption. Read Hayes, a research scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, says he knows of only one U.S. retailer currently using body-worn cameras — he isn’t permitted to identify the company.

Hayes’ team is currently working with a camera provider and a retailer to develop an experiment where parking lot personnel like security guards and cart collectors are equipped with body-worn cameras at select stores. They will be analyzed in relation to non-camera-wearing associates at a like number of stores with demographically similar locations and customer bases, comparing factors such as how often personnel are asked for help or information, the number of complaints and instances of confrontations. Hayes says the test should be underway in the next three to six months.

REDUCTION IN VIOLENCE

The use of body cameras by private security personnel in the United Kingdom dates back at least a decade. In 2009, parking lot attendants in Scotland wore head-mounted cameras; research studies found the camera-wearers were subject to less abuse from the public. A few years later, City Centre Management in Belfast, Northern Ireland, tested body cameras in key retail locations and subsequently saw a 43 percent decrease in retail theft. Such dramatic results are still occurring, according to Edesix’s McBride.

“We have some interesting statistics from a key customer of ours which has shown a reduction of 34 percent in violent incidents within their retail stores during a trial,” he says, “and we’ve been informed that reduction has grown since the full roll-out.”

The aim of body-worn cameras is to reduce violence toward the wearer of the camera, provide evidence of interaction/actions taken to corroborate or oppose any accusations or written reports, and give an unbiased and fair view of an incident, interaction or job.

Consumer reaction has been positive; one Edesix client company survey found more than 90 percent of respondents thought body cameras would improve shopper safety and 80 percent said their use “would not impede on the privacy of shoppers.”

McBride says the software can redact the identity of non-criminals captured on camera; recordings are encrypted and stored securely, which allows for a full chain of custody to be proven. Companies also can put into place automatic deletion policies to delete unnecessary footage after a prescribed amount of time.

“Due to the strict encryption authentication protocols on our software, even a lost or stolen camera cannot have its footage accessed by an unauthorized person,” McBride says. “Once footage is offloaded and stored in our VideoManager platform, only authorized personnel can access that footage — password protected — and a full audit trail of who has accessed, shared, cropped or redacted footage is available to administrators.”

FORENSIC USE

Hayes sees broader possibilities for the use of body cameras in the United States. For one thing, “They can capture interactions for training purposes,” he says — both the type of interactions a front-line wearer can expect to take place as well as assessing the wearer’s ability to follow policy and procedures.

In addition, he sees potential in a forensic use of video because it can enhance a claim of wrong-doing, such as shoplifting.

As for the rate of adoption in the United States, “It’s early,” Hayes says. “There’s not a crushing demand, but there is an interest. Retailers are asking themselves ‘Why do it? Then, how do we do it? Then, should we do it?’”

The questions involve more than “Is the bang worth the buck?” Hayes says, noting that many guidelines could be developed after reviewing body-worn camera use by police. “Lessons learned in law enforcement use will be a big help.”

There are additional considerations, such as body camera use at big-box stores with their own parking lots versus smaller footprint retailers that might be more reliant on shopping center security. There is also the question of shoplifter confrontation in general, as well as the effects of cameras on customer service and perceived customer experience.

Hayes is confident these issues will be thoroughly examined, because when retailers and shopping center operators consider their target shopper, they “want her to feel safe,” he says.

David P. Schulz has been writing for STORES since 1982 and is the author of several non-fiction books.

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