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St. Petersburg chief wants seized money to help stores stop robberies

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon offered a concession to embattled convenience store owners Thursday: Install costly new security systems, and the Police Department will help cover the bill.

Harmon said a proposed measure that would require convenience store owners, including small mom-and-pop operations, to beef up their security could ultimately run shop owners out of business unless the city intercedes.

He suggested the city use money confiscated during arrests to establish a grant program that would help offset the cost of electronic door locks, just one of a handful of safety measures that could soon become mandatory in St. Petersburg.

"I just thought it was the right thing to do given this economic climate," said Harmon.

Confiscated cash already has to go back into the community under state law.

Harmon spoke minutes before the City Council took the first step toward making the proposed safety measures law Thursday.

The council unanimously approved two ordinances that would allow the Police Department to enforce security standards defined under state statue.

"It is just something that the state was to enforce and might not have been doing it at the level we were comfortable with," said council member Herb Polson.

The law is being proposed after five clerks and a St. Petersburg detective were wounded by gunfire in five south Pinellas robberies in two months.

The city ordinances would go further than the state law, which applies only to businesses open at any time between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

The law requires stores to install security cameras, keep parking lots lighted and clear windows of any distracting signs, among other measures.

Convenience stores that are robbed also must undergo safety reviews under the law.

They'll then have to implement at least one of the following measures: install bullet-resistant enclosures; keep two employees on duty at all times; hire a security guard; lock the store at night and limit transactions to a trap door outside. Store owners also could comply by closing their business between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Already racked with fear after the rash of violent robberies, convenience store owners had expressed concern in recent days that the proposed measures were unrealistic for small business owners struggling to makes ends meet.

Harmon said he could set aside $25,000 to help pay for electronic door locks that would allow store owners to buzz customers into their shops.

Shop owners could apply for $500 grants if the council approves the program, he said. The electronic systems cost about $700, and shop owners would be expected to pick up the rest of the tab, Harmon said.

Harmon said the locks would allow store owners to essentially screen customers.

"It's about the safety of the person inside the store," he said. "If it's late at night and you are getting the milk, you don't have to watch the door. It's locked."

The council must hold a public hearing on the measures and take a second vote before the ordinances take effect.

The current spate of robberies started with the Dec. 1 robbery of the Star Deli on Fifth Avenue N. It was the second time in six years owner Narendra Patel, 54, had been shot by a robber.

Patel said he wishes the police would emphasize finding the criminals.

He would like to see harsher penalties for robbers. He's increased security at his store with a cage around the counter, a buzzer and surveillance cameras, but doesn't think it should be mandatory.

"It cost me $10,000," he said. "Not everybody can afford that."

Times staff writer Stephanie Garry contributed to this report.

St. Petersburg chief wants seized money to help stores stop robberies 02/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2009 12:13am]
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