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The Rise of Body-Worn Cameras in Retail

While the specter of retail staff being subjected to violence and verbal abuse from shop thieves and irate customers is sadly not a new phenomenon, growing concerns about its increase—especially associated with organized retail crime (ORC) attacks—is once again putting the spotlight on how retail staff can best be protected. Certainly in the UK, one approach that is gaining considerable traction is the use of body-worn cameras (BWCs). While their use is now relatively common and increasingly mandatory within the law enforcement community in many countries, their use in the retail environment is still a recent development.

As part of an ECR Retail Loss study looking at the use of various types of video technologies in retailing, respondents were asked about their use of BWCs. Of the 22 companies taking part in the research, nearly two-thirds (60%) were either using or trialing some form of BWC. 

Utilizing BWCs

The technology, while varying in design and functionality depending upon the supplier and the retailer requirement, was found to be employed for five reasons:

  1. Generate Deterrence: Show the offender—usually using a body-mounted screen—that their behavior (including what they say) is being recorded, with a view to this, encouraging them to desist from what they are doing.
  2. Support Prosecution/Punishment: Provide video evidence of miscreant behavior which can then be used as part of a prosecution/banning order/disciplinary action. In addition, some retailers used them to provide video evidence of banning orders being served upon known shop thieves.
  3. Moderate Staff Responses: Act as a control on staff behavior when dealing with offenders. Deter wearers from stepping outside agreed boundaries of acceptable behavior, such as using inappropriate language, using excessive force, or pursuing offenders beyond agreed zones of engagement. This in turn can reduce the likelihood that the business may be subject to legal redress later.
  4. Offer Reassurance: Provide reassurance to wearers and other staff in their proximity by increasing their perception that there is an increased likelihood miscreants will be identified and prosecuted/banned.
  5. Inform Staff Training: Enable video images to be captured, which can then be used for training purposes, to improve the way in which retail employees recognize, avoid, and respond to challenging customers and incidents.

Impact of BWCs

To date, most retail companies are deploying BWCs on security staff, although there is growing evidence that they are increasingly being worn by retail staff as well. Whilst it was not possible for the ECR research to collect extensive and definitive data on the extent to which the use of BWCs had impacted levels of violent incidents in retail stores, seven of the 13 companies had carried out some form of evaluation/review, often based on small trials in a few stores looking at their impact on the number of recorded incidents. In addition, some had surveyed the wearers of BWCs to ascertain their views on using the technology.

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For all those that had carried out a trial, they found that the use of BWCs was associated with a reduction in the number of incidents of violence and verbal abuse; the lowest reduction was recorded at 30 percent while the highest was an 80 percent reduction in these types of incidents. Overall, when averaging across this data, the use of BWCs was associated with a reduction in the number of violent and verbal abuse incidents by about 45 percent.

For the most part, staff attitude to the use of this technology was very positive: ‘It’s been a very positive story for us; feedback is really good’; ‘Staff absolutely love them’. None had found any negative feedback from customers and indeed some argued that they viewed them as an indication of the extent to which the business was taking safety and security seriously.

Future Developments in the Use of BWCs

In terms of next steps, respondents to the research suggested the following:

  • Roll out the use of BWCs to more stores and staff.
  • Look at ways to connect the BWC unit to a security operations center (SOC) via a panic button.
  • Consider less overt, more discrete forms of the technology for retail staff.
  • Encourage users to trigger recording before an incident escalates, such as capturing images as they approach a situation and the surrounding scene.
  • Track the location of BWCs to ensure users are not going beyond agreed zones of engagement.
  • Possible use on home delivery staff though there were concerns around privacy and data protection issues.
  • Monitor staff usage to avoid deployment slippage.
  • Consider live viewing via a SOC, though concerns about the number of false positives was deterring many from trying this idea.

Safety Versus Privacy

The available evidence thus far suggests that BWCs can be effective, but as with various types of surveillance-based technologies, the cultural and legal context within which they are being used will be an important factor to consider in determining the extent to which they can be used in a retail environment. As with many decisions in this space, it often comes down to balancing the desire to offer a safe shopping environment while protecting the privacy of those within it. For a member of staff who has been violently attacked, they may increasingly be more keen on the former than the latter.

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Adrian Beck
Adrian Beck

Video Watch is a monthly column written by Professor Adrian Beck sharing insights on the proactive use and impact of video technologies in retail. It reflects the latest research and monthly discussions of the Video Working Group of ECR Retail Loss, the leading global think tank on retail loss. The research commissioned by ECR Retail Loss is supported by independent research grants provided by Genetec and other leaders in retail loss prevention. 

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