DEBENHAMS department store in Blackburn’s Mall shopping centre has topped a league table of the town’s shoplifting hotspots for the third year running.

Police were called out 109 times, more than twice a week, to deal with shoplifters during the 2013/2014 financial year. This marked an increase from 95 offences in the year before.

Shoplifting across Blackburn has increased over the past year, with 1,093 offences recorded in the year to March 2013, rising to 1,122 the following year.

Officers said in 74 per cent of cases shoplifters were caught in the act, and the most frequently targeted items include perfume and aftershave, clothing, razor blades, and alcohol.

But there has been a worrying trend of more food items being stolen. It is also thought that not all incidents are reported, especially low value items.

Figures released by Lancashire Police under Freedom of Information laws show the 20 town centre locations where shoplifting was most prolific.

Large supermarkets made up four of the top six hotspots for police call-outs, with ASDA in second place, Morrisons in third, and Tesco and Lidl in joint fifth place on the list. The fourth-placed spot was taken by the Boots store in The Mall.

Senior police have called on Debenhams to be more proactive in preventing theft, after officers spent almost four months of policing hours in the store last year.

Inspector Abid Khan said: “We find it difficult to engage with Debenhams. We’ve tried to contact senior managers to address the problem, and end up going round in circles.”

He said that store detectives focus on apprehending shoplifters once they attempt to leave the store with stolen goods, rather than discouraging them from stealing in the first place.

He added that police had also asked for the store to be redesigned from the current layout, where high value items are placed at the front of the store, but that their request was turned down.

Town centre Sergeant Nick Everett said: “There was a shop-frontage remodelling for Debenhams branches to increase footfall. High value items were placed five metres from the doorway. But we said to them it’s not conducive to crime prevention.”

The senior officers said that repeated visits to Debenhams were diverting officers from other jobs, and that if lower-level thefts were dealt with in store it could free up police time to deal with more serious offenders, and crackdown on organised gangs who come into East Lancashire to specifically target shops in the area.

Debenhams did not respond to repeated requests for a comment.

Burnley's flagship Tesco store in Finsley Gate topped a league table of the town’s shoplifting hotspots for the third year running.

Police were called out 66 times in the last financial year - up from 41 times the year before, after thieves were caught.

Figures released by Lancashire Police under Freedom of Information laws detail the twenty locations in Burnley where shoplifting is most prolific.

Fellow supermarket ASDA came in second, with officers called in 52 times, and and Marks and Spencer third place.

Across the Burnley area the number of incidents have been holding steady, with 569 offences reported between Apil 2013 and March this year, compared to 577 for the previous year.

Sergeant Rodger Crew, from Burnley police, said that from a police point of view, the preferred approach would be to prevent shop theives, rather than to detain and arrest them.

He said: “A lot of the big shops are a lot more proactive here. Security staff deter rather than arrest and detain, they’ll shoo them out of the shops or follow them round, and that’s a positive for us.

“If somebody is nicking something worth £2, £3, £4, or £5, and you have to go down the prosecution line, what’s the point?

“If it’s someone incredibly prolific then it is obvious we’ve got a crime as far as I’m concerned. But if it’s one child taking something small, there are ways of dealing with it.

“There’s fixed penalties, or taking them home to their parents first.

“They can prevent rather than catch and detain. It can take up a lot of police time processing people and booking them in.”

Town centre businesses have however come together through the Blackburn Business Improvement District (BID) to support policing in the town centre, and have provided funding for two additional PCSOs.

Tony Duckworth, from Blackburn with Darwen Chamber of Trade advocated stronger sentences for shop thieves, saying: “The criminal justice system treats them too leniently on many occasions.

“I would like them to have more extensive holidays at Her Majesty’s Pleasure than they currently have.”

And Suleman Khonat, from the National Federation of Newsagents, said: “In recent years the number of small thefts have increased.

“It does have an impact whether it’s a small theft or a big one. These days the profit margins are very, very little.”

Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle agreed that there was a joint responsibility to act.

He said: “We’ve got to accept that we can’t have a policeman standing in every shop.

“Most big shops have store detectives, and small shops should maybe put up CCTV cameras to deter them.

“The shops should accept responsibility for looking after their own stock, but at the end of the day it’s theft, it’s against the law, and it’s the duty of the police to take them to court.”

Retailers said they were taking the issue seriously, and putting measures in place to address the problem.

Tesco spokesman Mark Thomas said: “Like many retailers across Blackburn, our stores are sometimes targeted by shoplifters. Each store works hard to ensure security measures are in place to prevent this and we work closely with the police on tackling crime.”

Morrisons General Manager John Brooksbank added: “Unfortunately supermarkets will always be a target for shoplifting and other types of anti-social behaviour.

“We train all our staff to be vigilant and work closely with the police to report crime and catch those responsible.”

An ASDA spokeswoman added: “We welcomed over one and a half million customers to our store in Lancashire over the past year yet instances of shoplifting are minimal.

"However, we do take the matter extremely seriously following up every incident with the Police. That’s why it’s important to report it so that we can continue to offer the low prices that customers expect from Asda."

Panel one: POLICE and businesses have several avenues available to them to deter and combat shoplifters.

Shops use a range of measures from store detectives to CCTV and cardboard cutouts of police officers to stop the thieves.

And those offenders who come before the courts can be dealt with in a number of ways.

Police can seek Asbo’s and Crasbo’s (criminal Asbo’s) to prevent thieves entering certain shops or areas.

Prolific shoplifter Diane Caswell was given an Asbo in October last year to stop her targetting retail outlets across East Lancashire.

The order will last for two years and Caswell will face up to five years in jail if she is caught breaching it.

Caswell has been barred from a total of 27 stores in Blackburn, Clitheroe, Nelson, Darwen and Accrington, and is not allowed to go into Blackburn's town centre shopping area unless it is for pre-arranged appointments.

And in December, Blackburn sisters Khalida Ahmed and Nazia Haq were banned from entering the town centre and Townsmoor retail park.

Ahmed, the more prolific shoplifter, is also banned from more than a dozen stores in Blackburn, Darwen, the Ribble Valley, Accrington and Burnley.

The sisters could be sent to prison if they even set foot in one of the shops.

Individual shops and shopping centres have also worked to address the problem, by setting up crime reduction partnerships, and implenting civil banning orders to keep prolific offenders away.

Blackburn’s Mall shopping centre has a whole list of people who are barred from entering the building.

Loraine Jones, General Manager at The Mall, Blackburn, said: “We have a fantastic team of professional, experienced security personnel here and we take part in a campaign called Detect and Deter, aimed at identifying offenders before they enter The Mall.

“We also work closely with our retailers to offer advice and support on an ongoing basis.”

Inspector Abid Khan added: “Lancashire isn’t a soft touch. Blackburn is one of the safest places to shop.”

Panel two: MANY hungry families across Lancashire are turning to shoplifting just to put food on the table.

Lancashire police believe the number of shoplifting cases has continued to rise because some people are stealing to feed themselves and their families.

And food bank staff said they knew of cases where families were looking to crime because they did not know where else to turn.

Cases that have passed through magistrates’ courts in the last year include a 27-year-old Blackburn woman who stole a tuna baguette worth £1.85 from Greggs, a Burnley man who took joints of meat from an ASDA store, and a 60-year-old man from Accrington who took instant mash and cheese worth just £4 from Iceland.

This week Grzegorz Kosow, 37, of Brownlow Street, Blackburn appeared before town magistrates for stealing ham worth £3.90 from Lidl.

The court heard he was unable to work following a vicious knife attack and stole the meat to eat because he was embarrassed to ask friends for further help.

Ros Duerden, from Blackburn food bank, said: “We’ve had a lady in the centre recently who was in trouble with the police because she’d stolen two packets of bacon and a packet of sausages to feed her kids.

“People are coming in who are desperate enough to do it.

“Do we really want somebody to get a criminal record because they want to food their family?”

Police officers said that while they could not comment on why people were turning to crime, those who were clearly motivated by poverty were being treated with compassion.

Blackburn town centre seargeant Nick Everett said: “We would take a very proportionate approach, that the officer felt was reasonable.

“We’ve got to ask the question why are they doing it?”

Inspector Abid Khan added: “We may make a PVP (potentially vulnerable person) referral, and review the support offered to the individual.

“Neighbourhood officers will go round and ask ‘have you got gas, and electricity, and food?’ “If we bring them in here and take them to court and they get a fine they can’t pay, then they go out and steal again. It doesn’t benefit anyone.”