A former loss prevention officer is speaking out about his experience working undercover in stores stopping thieves.

Theft is on the rise in Winnipeg at local shops and Liquor Marts and some believe store policies may be partly to blame.

CTV News has agreed not to identify the loss prevention officer because he has ongoing concerns for his safety due to the nature of his previous employment.

The man now has a new job but worked undercover in department stores, grocery stores and pharmacies to stop shoplifters. (According to the province, a loss prevention officer doesn’t have to wear a uniform but has the same power as a security guard, which means they can arrest people found committing a property crime such as shoplifting.)

"When I was working I was catching every four hours,” he said. “I was catching two a day, minimum."

Every work day for 10 years he wore a protective vest underneath his street clothes to help protect himself against violence on the job.

He said that’s because some shoplifters didn't give in without a fight.

"You just don't know who you're going out the door after,” the man said. "I've had black eyes. I've had my nose broken; that's just everyday working stuff that you just get used to."

"I've been stabbed. I didn't know the guy had a knife."

Flaws in hands-off policies

The man said in some cases catching a shoplifter means using physical force, work he said was dangerous but necessary.

He said store policies which prohibit physical intervention with suspected thieves only encourage shoplifting.

"There's no stopping it,” he said. “If you're going to have a hands-off policy and say, ‘excuse me, sir can I please have that back’ you're just wanting them to steal because there's no deterrent."

University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor Michael Weinrath agrees. He said those policies could also make it more difficult for police to get to the bottom of thefts.

"Are they organized criminals who are selling these things online, are they meth addicts who need some sort of treatment. We need to know more about these individuals but if we don't have any intervention from the security staff then we're not going to find anything out,” said Weinrath. "This is a concern that people are suddenly seeing it as a thing to do and that there won't be any repercussions."

For its part, the Winnipeg Police Service said arrests are being made but it’s taxing resources.

Early Monday morning, officers identified a vehicle in the Weston area which turned out to be stolen and subsequently charged three people for a total of 55 Liquor Mart thefts involving more than $28,000 worth of product.

Investigators believe it may be an organized effort but not gang related.

“My answer from a police standpoint is no, it’s not part of gang activity,” said Const. Rob Carver. “Three people doing coordinated thefts could possibly be called gang activity but not from our investigators’ standpoint.”

“Did they talk about what they were doing? Possibly. That’s the nature of a lot of criminal offences.”

The former loss prevention officer thinks stores need to do more to send a message to shoplifters.

"And that doesn't mean saying, 'excuse me, sir can I please have that back,’” the former loss prevention officer said. “That doesn't work because that just means they're back five minutes later."

Until that happens he believes shoplifting will continue to be a problem.

John Graham, director of government relations for the Prairie region with the Retail Council of Canada, said the safety of employees and customers is the main concern when it comes to dealing with shoplifting.

Graham said security policies vary for each business and that policies may be set on how and when apprehensions occur.

“Often these are situational issues that require judgement,” Graham said in an email. “While loss prevention apprehension practices must be based on reasonable evidence, there are times an accused responds aggressively and an officer must respond with appropriate force to ensure a safe conclusion.”

Weinrath said it would be too expensive to put police officers in liquor stores to prevent shoplifting.

He said a mix of restorative justice, addictions treatment and time in custody for repeat offenders is needed to curb thefts.

Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said he’s meeting with police agencies across the province to reduce crime, adding that he met with the chief of the Winnipeg Police Service and other police executives last week.

“We committed to work together to reduce crime and combat addiction and mental health challenges in Winnipeg and throughout our province,” Cullen said in an emailed statement.

“The powers of private security services have not been raised directly with me from law enforcement. It is something that we look forward to discussing with police over the coming weeks and months.”