A grassroots CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) initiative to help reduce crime in convenience stores is in growth mode, thanks in part to interest from some major academic institutions.
By Neil Sutton
Sean Sportun, manager of security and loss prevention, started a project to paint murals on Mac’s convenience stores more than five years ago to help spur community support and reduce the incidence of violent crime in stores. With the blessing of his parent organization, Couche Tard, Sportun sought local graffiti artists to create murals on some of the most troubled store locations in Thunder Bay, Ont. The murals were hugely successful; Sportun was recognized for his creative approach by his employers and also by Canadian Security magazine, which awarded him Security Director of the Year in 2013.
The project drew interest from a University of Toronto Rotman School of Management associate professor, Katy DeCelles. “I’ve always been interested in criminology in organizations,” she explains, adding that her research has included prison workers and aggressive behaviour on airplanes.
DeCelles reached out to Sportun about five years ago and was gratified to find he was interested in participating in further research.
What developed through their partnership was a research project, partially funded by a Harvard University grant, and a case study published by Harvard Business School with a detailed background on the Mac’s organization (now known as Circle K after a rebranding exercise) and a focus on the mural project. The study — written by DeCelles with Harvard faculty collaborators Francesca Gino and Olivia Hull — is now available to other academic institutions as a teaching aid.
“Here we have somebody who really revamped an organization’s strategy and implementation of loss prevention,” says DeCelles of Sportun’s unique spin.
The case study can be examined or taught from a variety of perspectives, she adds, including CPTED, loss prevention or business culture.
“Even if you don’t care necessarily about the criminology component of it, from a business perspective, somebody who’s able to change an entrenched perspective in an organization and have such good outcomes — that’s also a nice way to use the materials.”
When Sportun was first approached by DeCelles, he estimates Mac’s had completed three or four murals. The project needed to be scaled up to increase its impact and create more data points that could be used for further research. It wasn’t a tough sell to Mac’s management. Not only was crime going down but sales were going up $65,000 a year in the stores that had murals painted on their exterior walls.
“I started leveraging that with my management, saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not just an expense centre, we’re not just going to ask you for cameras and spend your money, we’re … making the store safer,’” says Sportun.
DeCelles also contributed in unexpected ways. Sportun provided DeCelles with surveillance footage of 350 robbery incidents that had occurred in Mac’s stores across the country. “My team is coding them to see what are the things that robbers do, what are the things that clerks do that might, in that high stakes interaction, result in more likelihood [of injury]. And then can we take what we learned from that and import it back into Mac’s training,” says DeCelles.
One conclusion the research team reached was that violence was more likely to occur during a robbery if a store employee is mopping the floor when the perpetrator enters. “What they had suggested was, the bad guy, seeing the employee with a mop in his hand, sees it as a weapon and introduces violence immediately to neutralize the threat,” says Sportun. “I looked at it and I thought, I never connected that.”
Employee training techniques have been updated as a result.
The number of store murals now stands at 22. Sportun is hoping to do 50 more and DeCelles aims to continue her research.
A large increase in murals will allow the researchers to draw more statistically significant conclusions, she says — particularly when compared to stores that haven’t bene ted from the murals yet. It’s a long-term project, she says, with more analysis coming in a year or so. It’s too soon to tell but “the trends are encouraging.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Canadian Security.