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Jewellers in the firing line

An escalation in the frequency and force of armed robberies in Victoria is a source of constant concern for retail jewellers looking to protect their businesses. NICK LORD reports.

The figures are in and they’re not good; the Victorian jewellery sector is dealing with an unprecedented crime surge. A trend of burglaries that began in 2016 shows no signs of abating and armed robberies have risen exponentially.


"The level of concern has risen high enough to drive some people out of the industry."
John Michaelis, JAA Victoria vice chair

The crime wave appears confined to Victoria where at least a dozen retailers have been robbed since 2016. Some have been unlucky enough to be targeted more than once and one prestigious jeweller has been hit three times.

Statistics by Australia’s Crime Statistics Agency (CSA) show 135 total offences at jewellery locations across Victoria between April 2016 and March 2017. Now that figure sounds high but it includes 57 instances of petty theft and shoplifting. Once those are stripped away, the data shows 19 armed robberies, five attempted armed robberies, 39 burglaries and 15 attempted burglaries.

To put this in perspective, April 2015 to March 2016 data, just one year earlier, shows no armed robberies or attempted robberies in Victoria and burglaries almost unchanged at 53 total offences – 37 actual and 16 attempted.

The distinction between burglaries and robberies is defined as whether anyone is present at the time of theft. In a burglary, an offender enters a structure illegally as a trespasser for the purpose of stealing. There are no victims present and the offence usually occurs after the premises are closed. In a robbery, an offender uses force or fear to take items from another person. Robberies become armed robberies if the assailant is carrying a weapon.

CSA statistics are released quarterly and data after March 2017 hadn’t been released at time of print; however, since April, the media has reported armed robberies in the metropolitan suburbs of Elsternwick, Brighton, Malvern, Coburg, Niddrie, Toorak, Waverley Gardens and Springvale.

Detective inspector Kerin Moloney, who heads up the crime unit investigating jewellery robberies in Victoria, confirms the rise in robberies and burglaries.

“We’ve had more than 30 armed robberies since July 1, 2016,” he says, adding, “The most recent armed robbery was on June 30, 2017.”

This occurred at Barnett’s Jewellery in Niddrie when five masked offenders armed with hammers smashed through the front window and stole cash and a cash register from a distressed female employee around 4.30pm.

This description would be shocking if it weren’t the new normal. Masked youths in roving gangs of three, four and five are forcing their way into stores, smashing cabinets, windows and doors and stealing what they can. Taking place during operating hours, the robberies consistently result in massive property damage and badly-shaken staff.

Victoria Police confirms that one major characteristic of offenders is youth.

“We’ve charged 36 offenders and 24 of those were 17 years or under at the time of arrest,” Moloney says. “The youngest was 15.”

A popular misconception is that the robberies are the work of a gang of Somalian teens. Moloney admits that some offenders are indeed African but denies that African gangs are exclusively involved.

“The offenders are from all backgrounds – African, Australian, Middle-Eastern, Pacific Islander and southern European. It’s a really broad range,” he explains.

As to the topic of gangs, Moloney confirms that some offenders have been present for multiple robberies but says this is indicative of the way youths interact rather than proof of gang involvement.

“Some of these offenders have been charged with more than one robbery and some have also potentially committed other armed robberies that we are still investigating but we certainly don’t say it’s one group who is committing all of these robberies,” he explains. “We refer to recent activity as ‘network offending’. This involves younger offenders engaging with each other through various forums – friendship groups and social media among them. They link together through those forums and go and commit offences.”

Network youth offending isn’t new nor is it restricted to the jewellery sector but Moloney assures jewellers that Victoria Police is directing more resources their way.

“We’ve got regional crime squads in the north, east, south and west of the state all working closely with [central crime unit] Crime Command,” Moloney says. “We’ve got in excess of 200 crime-prevention officers in the state so there’s no reason why we can’t provide adequate support to jewellers.”

Industry involvement

Police aren’t the only ones escalating their responses to jewellery crime. Jewellers Association of Australia (JAA) Victoria state committee chair Michael Oboler and vice chair John Michaelis have volunteered significant time and effort to inform and educate retailers on store security and crime prevention.

The two men ran an industry-wide forum on crime prevention earlier this year in conjunction with Victoria Police, the Gemmological Association of Australia and the Gold and Silversmiths Guild of Australia. Some 200 retailers attended, signifying the high level of concern within the trade, and Oboler and Michaelis have subsequently hosted another five meetings with jewellers where the trade and police discuss robbery prevention and store security, a practice known as ‘target hardening’.

“This is an important issue for all,” Michaelis says. “We’ve been giving retailers ideas of what they can do to prevent robberies, like making sure their CCTV is up to standard. We’ve also discussed products to strengthen their doors and windows, buzzer-release systems, time delays on their safes, window sensors that alert the alarm company when windows are struck and more. We’re basically just putting out there all the products that are available.”

Michaelis says the meetings are open to all jewellers and that retailers can contact him or Oboler at their respective businesses, AM Imports and Oblo Jewellery, for information anytime: “Yes, Michael and I represent the JAA’s Victorian branch but we’re not limiting our work to JAA members; we’re doing this for anyone in the Victorian industry and even interstate.”

Moloney believes this education and training initiative is having a positive effect.

“Eight of the last 16 robbery attempts have been unsuccessful,” he says. “Before those 16, almost all offences were successful. This is reflective of the excellent work jewellers are doing around crime prevention and target hardening.”

Likewise, Michaelis is pleased with Victoria Police’s response to the crisis.

“Police are doing a wonderful job; they’re in contact with us a lot and always accessible if we want to contact them,” he says.

MENTAL NOTES

In the event of a robbery, Victoria Police detective inspector Shayne Pannell says staff need to remain calm and observant.

“It will be probably one of the most frightening experiences that a staff member will ever experience but we need them to remain observant even while their blood pressure is rising and their heart rate racing,” Pannell states. “Descriptions are vital, especially in initial action when the uniformed police attend that scene and are quickly trying to get information from a victim.”

Some points of focus include:

• An offender’s mannerisms
• An offender’s height and build.
• An offender’s clothing.
• The colour an pattern of any masks or facial coverings.


Garry Holloway is owner of Holloway Diamonds. His Canterbury store was robbed twice in January and March, both times by three assailants who smashed their way into the store during opening hours with machetes, hammers and tomahawks. The thieves snatched jewellery from display cabinets. Holloway’s Brighton store was also targeted in April but the would- be thieves fled after encountering an armed security guard.

Holloway is also pleased with the police, who have subsequently arrested and charged a small group of teenagers with the robberies, but dissatisfied with the courts.

“The police have been fantastic,”he says.“I’ve got no complaints for those involved in catching these kids but the courts are very lenient with juveniles; they mostly get out on good behaviour bonds.”

Youth sentencing is a hot issue, especially among robbery victims who are frustrated by a pattern of lax sentencing for minors.

“Victims feel the courts have disregarded and disrespected the suffering of people in the trade,” Oboler told the ABC back in June.

Michaelis agrees: “Some of these offenders are under 18 but there doesn’t seem to be any differentiation between whether they steal a chocolate bar or break into a house, steal a car or break into a jewellery store with five or six other people.”

Police have no authority over sentencing, which is a judiciary issue, and Michaelis and Oboler have had no luck contacting the State Government to discuss it.

“We’ve written to the premier and other MPs but we haven’t had a response from anyone,” Michaelis says. “We need to be able to talk to the government about sentencing in this state.”

Impact on business

So concerned are retailers about the robberies that some are even abandoning their businesses.

“The level of concern has risen high enough to drive some people out of the industry when their leases are up,” Michaelis says. “People don’t want to be seen as potential targets.”

Making life harder, the crime wave has resulted in rising operating costs as jewellers fork out thousands of dollars for security upgrades. Holloway estimates he’s spent more than $50,000 on upgrades this year alone, including installing smoke cloak devices, bullet-proof glass and steel bracketing for doors.

The process is not only costly but time-consuming and complex.

Denis Kelleway is co-owner of Toorak’s IMP Jewellery, which has been robbed twice since October 2016. He says the store added a buzzer-release system but the time and effort getting it installed meant it wasn’t ready in time to thwart IMP’s most recent attack.

“Our security was already pretty good; we had 15mm laminated glass and a steel- framed door,” Kelleway says. “We tried to get a buzzer system in before Christmas but we had enormous difficulty getting it installed – we’ve probably used 100 man-hours getting it operating correctly. We wouldn’t have had our second robbery if we’d had that.”

Then there are the hidden costs. In the event of a robbery, insurance only refunds product loss and property damage, and even those only after exhaustive and time-consuming claims processes. Businesses can be shocked by hidden, non-claimable expenses such as the marketing required to get customers coming again.

“Insurance will only reimburse you for what you pay to replace an item so you can be out of pocket quite significantly,” Kelleway says. “You have to factor in the cost of promotion and marketing also.”

Staffing can generate another layer of costs, especially if rehiring or counselling staff is required. “The human cost is enormous; it’s really underestimated by governments and the courts,” Kelleway continues. “We had two staff members present during the robberies – one’s now away on stress leave and the other has moved into a different area of the industry.

“Considering the training that goes into staff, losing them is a big blow. Training up new staff members to be familiar not only with your product but with your systems and routines is a big cost.”

Once robbed, retailers and their staff can apply to government compensation agency Victims of Crime for financial assistance but Holloway warns of challenging bureaucracy and painful wait times.

“The Victims of Crime organisation is flawed and broken,” he says. “After the first robbery, I paid for a counsellor for our staff. After the second robbery, I called and told them I’d paid for counselling up until now but I wanted some support for myself. The process requires staff  to be assessed by a lawyer to be sure they’re really victims of crime. I said my staff were traumatised enough and asked to receive some counselling immediately but that wasn’t possible.”

Michaelis agrees that the system is inadequate: “Victims of Crime in Victoria is very slow. I’ve heard it can take anywhere from nine months to two years to get compensation here yet it takes just 14 to 17 days in NSW. Again, this is another question for the State Government.”

Finally, there’s the threat of rising insurance premiums if the industry remains a target. Holloway says it’s impossible to know what will happen to premiums until a policy comes up for renewal. He’s claimed for two robberies this year but his insurance company has not indicated any policy changes.

“I had that conversation with the broker just last week; he didn’t say he would be increasing our policy but he also didn’t say he wouldn’t insure us,” Holloway says. “He did note that we’d upgraded all of our security and reduced our
risk enormously.”

Michaelis says insurance companies are aware of the work the trade has been doing to self-manage the situation and that insurers do view security upgrades favourably. “In my opinion, insurance companies are generally responsive to security upgrades,”he says.“The insurance industry knows that we’re running meetings on security and have sent representatives along. Generally, they’ve been happy with what we’re running.”

Jewellers accept that many of these costs are unavoidable, part of the new retail environment.

“If the business is going to continue, it needs staff,” Holloway says. “This means ensuring staff feel safe when they come to work. A lot of our upgrades aren’t just for the insurance company.”

Kelleway agrees: “We don’t have a choice; we just have to live with it. Yes, some of the upgrades are incredibly expensive but they’re often one-off costs – once they’re done, they’re done.”

Michaelis urges retailers to come to meetings and also to lobby the government: “Jewellers can write to the premier Daniel Andrews and voice their concerns.”

Retailers can also call Victoria Police to request a visit from police who will provide advice on target hardening.

In the meantime, Moloney urges jewellers not to panic. As retailers upgrade their security, there’s a good chance any offenders will shift their attention to easier targets.

“This type of offending may shift to other commodities,” he says. “A few years back, the incidents were occurring in consumer electronics and then they moved to cigarettes. Now the focus is jewellery but it could just as easily move to another sector at any time.”

Moloney insists that the industry’s approach is the right one, so much so that he sees it as a template for the future.

“We consider the way that we’ve worked so closely with the jewellery industry as an ideal model for how we’d like to work with other industries in the future. The trade has correctly identified that enforcement is not going to solve this problem alone and retailers have taken ownership of the issue – they’re the ones driving the target-hardening. Also, the voluntary time and work that Michael Oboler and John Michaelis have contributed has been exceptional.”

Time will tell whether it’s been enough.

Anyone in Victoria who would like more information or support about crime prevention or target hardening can call 03 9247 6666 or download a business security kit by visiting: police.vic.gov.au/content.asp?Document_ID=9539.












ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Lord
Contributing Editor • Jeweller Magazine

Nick Lord is Jeweller’s chief writer on matters concerning the precious metal and diamond markets. He is a former assistant editor and contributes articles on retail science and branding, and is a published novelist.








Wednesday, 20 September, 2017 05:04am
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