Calls for mandated security for convenience stores questioned

Lawmakers feel pressure, but blanket approach not always answer, those involved say…

Muhammad Islam had been on the job for three weeks at the Big Red Food Mart in Pine Bluff, Ark., when he was shot dead during a September robbery. No arrest has been made in the 26-year-old’s death

In Canada, in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, a 50-year-old attendant was shot and killed while on night duty at a Shell station near the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border.

These are not isolated cases. Retail establishments open during late hours see more than their share of armed robberies and murders. In Maryland alone, violence at convenience stores and gas stations accounted for about 27 percent of commercial robberies in November.

The reaction to these crimes? Many times it’s legislation. These establishments need surveillance cameras, lawmakers say. Risk assessments should be in place. Cash on hand should be limited. But the jury’s still out on whether mandating such security measures at these late-night retailers will help prevent further crimes and deaths.

The Security Industry Association generally opposes unfunded mandates, said Marcus Dunn, SIA’s director of government relations.

“There’s no doubt that you’re going to be doing better if you have a robust security system on your premises,” Dunn told Security Director News. “We wouldn’t go out and oppose a mandate, but I certainly can’t imagine us going out around the country and lobbying for them. We’d be delighted if a community makes that determination—that’s their prerogative. But from a public policy perspective, there are better ways to encourage that rather than a mandate.”

The National Association of Convenience Stores says the issue of security mandates raises two questions: “Is the thing being mandated a good idea? And, is the idea of mandates a good idea?” said NACS spokesman Jeff Lenard.

“It’s very difficult to have a one-size-fits-all approach,” Lenard said. “Mandates as a whole are not embraced by our industry or pretty much any industry. We focus on the things we know that work from talking to security experts. You hear from well-meaning politicians who are under pressure to do something. But there can be a difference between doing something and doing something right. When mandates are considered, we just want to be part of the discussion.”

Private security consultants have differing opinions as well.

In Canada, David Hyde, owner and principal consultant at David Hyde & Associates and with more than 26 years of experience, told Security Director News that he has high praises for a Saskatchewan law that will go into effect on Jan. 1. It is not an ill-fated “knee-jerk” reaction, which many other legislative attempts are, he said.

“Too often I see these pieces of legislation put out in the face of an egregious act, like a death,” Hyde said. “You see a knee-jerk response from a politician, who typically reaches for a solution that has the most bang for the media. It’s virtually always ‘put up cameras.’ Cameras do little to prevent crime. There’s very little proof that they have a deterrent value, so let’s take a step back. But these lawmakers don’t do that. They rush to cameras or the panic alarm. But who’s monitoring, who’s going to respond?”

Hyde says he prefers, foremost, a “first-step, hazard identification-risk assessment.”

“What are previous incidents for the store? Is there a high level of loitering, homeless and drug-addicted people around? What is the risk environment?” he asks. “From that we can fashion a violence-prevention program that makes sense.”

The Saskatchewan law does just that, Hyde says.

“It’s beautiful, really. First, it put steps in place to eliminate or reduce the risks,” which is key, he said. “Then it runs through the types of things that need to be in place.”

The law calls for retailers to physically separate employees from customers, employ a second clerk on overnight duty, provide good visibility into and out of the store and implement other prevention measures such as a time-locked safe.

“These are the things that will make a tangible difference,” he said. “I’d like to see a more integrated approach, rather than just jumping to a single solution.”

Stores that aren’t in high-risk areas should be exempt from extreme precautions, Hyde said. But for stores in higher-risk locations he favors an independent safety audit, conducted a year after security measures have been put in place.

Security consultant Chris McGoey, of McGoey Investigative Services out of Los Angeles, said stores often get tired of working with law enforcement.

“Even if there is an ordinance, nobody goes around and checks until somebody gets killed. Then they check and say you weren’t compliant,” said McGoey, who before striking out on his own worked for seven years in loss prevention for the 7-11 chain of convenience stores. Instead, it would be wiser for retailers to stipulate what security measures they have in place, as required, as part of their application to do business, he said.

“All stores need a comprehensive [security] plan. But it’s not just ‘stick in cameras and you’re OK,’ ” he said.

The proposed Pine Bluff ordinance, which has been tabled, required convenience stores and restaurants to install and maintain surveillance cameras. Cameras were not working at the Big Red Food Market where Islam was killed. Fines of up to $1,000 could be assessed at properties found in noncompliance. The city’s Fire and Emergency Services Department would inspect properties and ensure that cameras are operational. Pine Bluff would be the first city of its size in the state to have such an ordinance.

Capt. Greg Shapiro of the Pine Bluff Police Department has said in news reports that his department supports the proposal and sees it as a crime deterrent.

In Maryland, the Prince George’s County’s proposal, which also was tabled, would have forced the approximately 600 convenience stores and gas stations that are open between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. to put their employees through a training program that would include cash handling and what to do in the event of a robbery. Stores also would have to install high-resolution digital security cameras and drop safes, and they would not be allowed to have more than $75 in the cash register.

Cost is a factor, Kirk McCauley, director of member relations for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said in news reports.

“Small businesses are hurting as it is right now. Making them buy a whole new camera system doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said.

Under the Maryland bill, store owners would have been given a yearlong grace period to meet the new security requirements. Those that don’t comply afterward would be fined $500 per offense.

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