The holiday season is a busy time for businesses and shopping centers everywhere, and the bustling commercial area along Manchester Road is no exception. Unfortunately, it is also a season of heightened crime for these areas and this year stores have a new resource targeting thieves.
"It gets bigger," said Officer Meredith Lebbing, the Manchester Police Department's business resource officer. "You have a lot more people inside the businesses now so it's harder to watch certain people."
As business resource officer, Lebbing deals exclusively with business-related calls, such as shoplifting, robberies, credit card fraud and gas station drive-offs. She works directly with stores to catch shoplifters and prevent robberies. On slow days, she visits each business to check in with the owners or security staff about any problems or suspicious people they may have encountered.
"Just to have a police car parked in front of the business for a while is kind of a deterrent for criminals," Lebbing said.
Lebbing is Manchester's first business resource officer. Most police departments in the area have at least one officer dedicated to retail crime—Ballwin has one, and Chesterfield has three. Acting Police Chief Tim Walsh decided to add one to the Manchester police force because the department was receiving an increasing number of business calls as more and more businesses moved to the area.
"We wanted to make sure the sector cars were available for calls in the sectors rather than being tied up with the businesses," he said.
Walsh and Lebbing both said that having an officer dedicated specifically to retail crime allows them to respond more quickly to such calls. It doesn't hurt that the police department is located within one mile of most of Manchester's major shopping centers.
The businesses Lebbing works most with are the large retail stores like Walmart, Kohls, Costco and Dierbergs. Since these stores are larger, there is more opportunity for shoplifters to conceal products and attempt to walk out with them. Many such stores have loss prevention staff who monitor security cameras and call Lebbing when they see suspicious activity.
"We actually cut down on a lot of theft and you see it. I can't say dying off, but it's not happening on a regular basis like it's been," Lebbing explained. "People get locked up and tell their friends, 'Hey, you're going to get caught from there.' But then again, we have arrested the same people doing the same crime."
Over the six months that Lebbing has held the business resource officer position, she has built a relationship with business owners and their loss prevention staff, so they know exactly who to call when there is a problem. Some loss prevention departments even have her personal mobile number, so they can reach her directly.
"I can respond to the business faster. I let dispatch know where I'm going so usually there's another car that will come back me up," Lebbing said. "But usually it's never just a theft, it always leads to more—whether they have warrants, [or] they've stolen from somewhere else."
For now, there are no plans to add more business resource officers to the Manchester police force.
"I want to say yes, but being a smaller department it's kind of hard to pull another officer off a squad if they're needed. I want to say we're going to try to put one in our budget, just so I don't work such a weird schedule," Lebbing added.
*No photo is provided of Lebbing due to the nature of her work.