St. Petersburg looks at ordinance to mandate crime prevention in stores

ST. PETERSBURG — Install surveillance cameras and a recording system inside the store — and make sure they work. Clear away signs and anything else that might keep the register from being seen from the outside.

Police say that is what owners need to do to fortify their stores against the kind of violent robbers who have shot five clerks and one police officer in eight weeks.

But so far, that sage advice has been just that — advice.

Council member Karl Nurse thinks the city should make it law. "It's pretty clear that it's safer for the operator and it reduces the chances of being robbed," Nurse said. "And if they are robbed, it improves the chances of catching and identifying the criminals."

Nurse has asked the city attorney to draft an ordinance that the council can discuss in a Feb. 12 workshop.

The St. Petersburg Police Department and the Asian American Convenience Stores Association are on board — with caveats.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon plans to meet with the store association this week to discuss it. "I want to get their input before the council meeting."

Mandating robbery prevention measures makes sense, Harmon said, if they're cost-effective. He supports measures like removing signs that obscure windows and doors, improving video surveillance and exterior lighting, and installing electronic door locks so clerks can control who enters.

"It shouldn't require any money and a little effort," the chief said. "But if we're requiring them to install bulletproof glass and expensive surveillance systems, that may be cost-prohibitive for many in business."

Association spokesman Sid Shah, who owns a local gas station, said his organization will support the kind of ordinance described by Nurse.

But Shah stressed that owners will support only security measures they can afford. Police, for example, recommend that stores keep two employees on duty to deter robbers. "The two-clerk rule can add an extra burden to the small chains and independents," Shah said. "We simply cannot afford it."

And, Shah pointed out, there were two clerks on duty when the Joy Food Mart in Gulfport was robbed on Dec. 22. Both were shot by a robber in front of one of the employee's three children.

Police already have visited stores to recommend safety improvements. And though police will not comment on what they're physically doing to protect the stores, the officer who was wounded in Monday's shootout with an armed robber was on undercover surveillance duty.

Mayor Rick Baker said the city needs to do whatever it can to stem the robberies.

"I think we should consider the (ordinance)," Baker said. "You always have to look for ways to improve the safety of the people in the stores."

Nurse said an ordinance is necessary because state security requirements for corporate-owned stores often don't apply to independent stores. Five of them have been robbed in south Pinellas since Dec. 1.

Why are so many store windows covered with ads? Some cigarettemakers contractually require owners to display their ads, Shah said. However, he added, those contracts can be overridden by a city ordinance.

Nurse said that in his experience some stores refuse to clear their windows of ads, product and other obstructions even after repeated robberies. "Sometimes you do what is in people's best interests," he said, "even if they are opposed to doing it."

Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg looks at ordinance to mandate crime prevention in stores 01/31/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 3, 2009 11:34am]

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