Meet the Town Centre Rangers tackling shoplifting and begging in Ipswich
They are not always popular with everyone, particularly the shoplifters or troublemakers they catch in the act.
But these Town Centre Rangers are helping to make Ipswich a safer place to visit.
Ever since Ipswich Central business improvement district (BID) started representing firms in the town in 2007, it has employed its own uniformed team.
Today a team of four rangers patrol the town centre between 8am and 5pm each day, not only to root out trouble but also provide reassurance by being a visible presence.
However their job is much wider than simply providing an extra layer of security, as the rangers also speak regularly with shops and businesses about how to prevent crime and anti-social behaviour.
It means they are involved in two of the biggest issues facing town centres at the moment –the continuous threat of shoplifting, as well as rough sleeping.
It is sometimes a thankless task – the rangers frequently have to deal with verbal abuse, although thankfully physical attacks are still quite rare.
Yet despite all the challenges of the job and their limited powers – they can hand out fines for littering and confiscate alcohol, but can only perform a citizen’s arrest – statistics show they are making a huge difference.
They ensure between £3,000 and £5,000 of shoplifted goods are handed back to stores each month and they returned £20,000 of stolen goods between April 2017 and April 2018.
They also issued 250 exclusion warnings in the same period, where people are given yellow card-style warnings that they will be banned from a store if they cause trouble there again.
“They are not always liked by everyone,” said Sophie Alexander, manager of Ipswich Central who was herself a Town Centre Ranger between 2007 and 2015.
“If they’re speaking to someone about anti-social behaviour, people do take umbrage.”
As such, the street rangers’ names are not made public to safeguard against the risk of reprisals.
“Initially the rangers were put out on the street in a more ambassadorial type of role,” said Ms Alexander.
“It was a meet and greet role for visitors and for people looking around the town centre looking for help with places to go.
“It was to give visitors a bit of a feeling that they’ve got people to go to.
“But very quickly there was an interest, need and want from businesses for additional support for low-level crime like anti-social behaviour and shoplifting.
“If you’ve got some people who can approach these people, they can deter it as well.”
Each day starts with what the rangers call a “sweep” of the town centre – sometimes with an outreach worker – looking for any issues that have cropped up overnight.
If they spot things like excess litter or criminal damage, they will report it to the various agencies responsible – such as the police or council – and speak to shop staff where necessary.
Frequently they will encounter rough sleepers in shop doorways, which Ms Alexander describes as a “big challenge for everyone” involved in tackling the issue.
She praised the huge joint effort between organisations such as Ipswich Borough Council, the Ipswich Winter Night Shelter and the Chapman Centre to tackle the problem.
Yet it still a difficult issue for the Town Centre Rangers, who have to balance compassionate support for those in the toughest of circumstances with needing to ensure businesses can trade.
Key to dealing with it, Ms Alexander explained, is trying to work out who is genuinely homeless and who are so-called ‘professional beggars’ collecting money despite having a home – which is a criminal offence.
For people who are genuinely homeless, the rangers will try to speak to them about their situation and encourage them to take up shelter and support services.
Ultimately the rangers do have to move rough sleepers on from shop doorways, although thankfully asking those people nicely to move does usually work.
Shoplifting, Ms Alexander added, is a “constant problem” which many people do not fully understand.
“They don’t see the impact it could have,” she said.
“Retail is struggling and shoplifting could have a huge impact in the way people trade or use the area.”
Ms Alexander said the rangers’ preferred way of solving the problem is to work with stores to help them prevent shoplifting in the first place.
Despite all their good work, Ms Alexander says that for some members of the public: “The assumption is that we do nothing. They ask why the rangers are here.”
The rangers describe verbal abuse as a “daily occurrence”, although that is from the troublemakers they are tackling rather than the public at large.
They go through extensive training about how to spot when someone is about to become aggressive and how to defuse that situation.
“It is about knowing how to react to different people,” Ms Alexander said.
“It’s a very difficult job to do.”