Police have set up a new crime-fighting unit in Southampton city centre.

Its mission is a simple one: to catch shoplifters, protect retailers and make sure shoppers feel safe.

Among the first to be caught was a bungling thief who tried to steal a £270 jacket right under the nose of police sergeant Carl Peverill, the man leading the squad.

Sgt Peverill was in plain clothes when he was talking to Lee, a senior supervisor at Trespass, on the day the City Centre Unit (CCU) was launched last Monday (November 20).

This was when the unwitting shoplifter tried to steal the pricey waterproof from the outdoor clothing store on Above Bar Street.

But he was no match for Sgt Peverill, who quickly dealt with the offender.

"A few years ago Southampton city centre was the Wild West", Lee told the Echo moments after the incident.

The comparison is shared with many other long-suffering retailers, for whom this still stands.

READ MORE: Southampton shop staff threatened with knives, spat on and abused

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The shoplifting figures back it up too.

In the Bargate ward, cases have jumped from 762 in 2022 to 1019 between January 1 to October 31 this year alone.

During the launch, we spent 30 minutes on patrol in Above Bar Street - and aside from the attempted theft, officers also dealt with homeless people acting aggressively and spoke to people who were dropping cigarette butts.

But thankfully, there's a new sheriff in town and several deputies to turn any traces of a 'Wild West' into Southampton's best.

Lee said: "We had private security in the past but it’s reassuring to have more support.

“We are reassured by the fact the CCU team is here.”

What is the City Centre Unit and why is it needed?

Daily Echo: Inspector Tim WilliamsInspector Tim Williams (Image: Newsquest)

For Tim Williams, neighbourhood inspector for the City Centre Unit (CCU), the team is all about ensuring there are less crime and more outcomes.

He said: “The team will prioritise thefts, shoplifting, street robbery, vagrancy, and anti-social behaviour.

“At the moment, shops everywhere are potential targets for this type of crime.“So, people will see an increased presence in that area and all officers will be robust in how they police because we want to put an end to it.”

The unit consists of seven police constables, two police community support officers, and sergeant Peverill.

The officers have been drafted in from other roles to create the retail crime squad, with new recruits filling their previous roles.

Primarily, officers cover an area of the city centre starting from Guildhall Square to just beyond the Bargate.

Daily Echo: The City Centre Unit footprintThe City Centre Unit footprint (Image: Hampshire Constabulary)

And it is no coincidence that the unit came into force as the festive season rolls in, with Southampton Christmas Market attracting thousands of visitors every week.

Inspector Williams is keen to ensure people are not deterred to visit the city centre because of the increased police presence.

He said: “Please come to Southampton – the police are here, and we are visible.

“We created this unit for people to feel safer. We don’t just want to enforce it; we want to create a presence of safety.

“There’s lots going on in the city centre and we want it to be enjoyed by all.”

'There is an increase in incidents in winter months'

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The high street is a hub of activity, even on a Monday morning.

With such a noticeable police presence in the area, you would imagine that thieves would stay away.

But following the attempted theft from Trespass, senior supervisor Lee said the shop is often targeted.

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He said: “Recently, the target has been our fleeces and we see an uptake at this time of year.

“There is an increase in incidents in winter months."

'Displaces regular criminals' 

Daily Echo: PCSO Nightingale and acting sergeant Chan PCSO Nightingale and acting sergeant Chan (Image: Newsquest)

Shop workers like Lee are not the only ones pleased about the introduction of the unit.

Martin Conlan is from GO! Southampton, which represents city centre businesses and lobbied for the CCU's creation.

He said: “It puts that police presence back on the streets where it needs to be.

“It is a visible presence that really displaces the regular criminals.

“This is a significant investment by Hampshire Constabulary back into the city centre.”

Daily Echo: Hampshire police, GO! Southampton and security staff at the shoplifting day of action outside the

GO! Southampton also funds its own city centre security staff and works alongside the police and Southampton City Council's welfare wardens to tackle issues in the city centre.

Martin said the impact of crime on shop staff has worsened in recent years: “Shoplifting became threatening, abusive, and violent. It’s public knowledge that shop staff are being abused every day.

“People are going to work and it should be a safe environment. Shop workers being abused is unacceptable.

“We want to see the reduction of crime and make a safer environment.

“We want a safe and prosperous Christmas period for everybody.”

His thoughts were echoed by the team at Westquay, who have also been targeted by criminals.

A spokesperson said: “Naturally, we are supportive of City Centre Unit and any measure which ensures visitors and locals remain safe.”