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‘It’s shocking’: rise in UK shopping centre staff wearing stab vests as violence soars | Knife crime

Staff wearing stab vests in shopping centres are becoming an increasingly common sight across the UK, after soaring demand for body armour amid a rise in violent and abusive incidents.

A British Retail Consortium report found that instances of violence and abuse in shopping centres rose 65% from 2021-22 to 2022-23. Body armour suppliers say demand for stab vests to be worn by shopping centre security staff has soared in the past two years.

Last week, a shopping centre became the scene of a crime that was broadcast around the world after a man armed with a knife attacked people at Bondi Junction mall in Sydney, Australia, killing six.

In shopping centres in the UK, on-site police presence has increased. In January, the Trafford Centre in Manchester opened a police station with officers stationed there.

Violence in and around shopping centres is not restricted to big cities. In West Bromwich two stabbing incidents have occurred near the New Square shopping centre since 2021, including the murder of a 15-year-old boy this month. In Slough, two teenagers were stabbed at the Queensmere Observatory shopping centre in January 2023.

In Ashford, Kent, cleaning staff at the County Square shopping centre have been supplied with stab vests since last summer. The area is a county lines hotspot and drug-taking has become common place on the high street outside the shopping centre. One local charity worker, who did not want to be named, said there had been a rise in synthetic drug-taking, including fentanyl.

Ashford town centre, where many shops have closed down or are boarded up. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

When the Guardian visited Ashford on Wednesday, there were many vacant lots in the shopping centre, including a large, shuttered Debenhams. Security staff patrolled the mostly empty centre and cleaners vacuumed play areas wearing cumbersome stab vests. In the town centre, many shops were boarded up and closed for good.

Rhia Harrup, 28, works in a tattoo parlour in a cul-de-sac surrounded by shuttered shops. “It’s shocking. I think people who are trying to do their [working in shops] should be the last people who are having to wear something to protect themselves. It’s really sad,” she said.

Recently, the windows of the tattoo parlour were smashed in. “There’s lots of antisocial behaviour around here. We see it really frequently. There’s a lot of people who drink during the day, walking past shouting and screaming, that’s what I see the most of,” Harrup added.

Demand for stab vests for shopping centre security staff has increased across the country. Jim Still, the head of business development at PPSS Group, which supplies seven of the 10 largest shopping centres in the UK with body armour, said that since last year the company has seen a huge increase in inquires from shopping centres.

“About five years ago, it wasn’t so popular for security staff in retail and shopping centres to wear stab vests because clients felt there was a perception that was potentially confrontational or aggressive,” he said.

Still said there had been a rise in people carrying spiked weapons, including hypodermic needles from drug users and screwdrivers and ice picks, which could be bought online for less than £10. He said he had provided body armour only to security staff so far but stab vests issued to front-of-house staff, including cleaners, could become more commonplace.

A closed shop in Ashford town centre, Kent. Violence in and around shopping centres is not restricted to big cities. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“I was in a shopping centre earlier this year and there were drug takers in the toilets. It’s the cleaning staff that are in there and the drug users can be quite aggressive towards them, so I can understand it. It’s a sorry state of affairs when cleaning staff are wearing body armour too,” he said.

Jason Rigby, a business development manager for the body armour firm Defence Composites, also said there had been an increase in demand for the company’s products amid a rise in shopping centre violence. “I’ve seen CCTV footage myself of people pulling large knives and machetes on security staff and customers,” he said.

He said the company had developed softer-looking, bespoke body armour to combat concerns about the image traditional body armour portrayed to customers. “People want something a bit softer, whether that’s a covert covering that can be worn under clothing or even a waistcoat-style body armour, which some shopping centres have asked us to produce.”

A spokesperson for the County Square shopping centre said: “There is no differentiation between our security and cleaning teams, who are both considered front-of-house staff and received, and started wearing, their vests at the same time. [This is] part of their PPE, which is becoming standard issue in the shopping centre industry. We are a responsible employer and continue to observe and make changes to our daily operation to ensure our teams are safe and feel safe in their duties.

“We certainly have no evidence of drug users loitering outside the centre either, so I am unable to comment,” the spokesperson said, adding that they were “stunned that such a positive move has received the volume of [negative] media attention it has”.

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