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St. Petersburg looks at rules to stop robbers; owners fear the cost

Narendra Patel of Star Deli at 2451 Fifth Ave. N has been shot twice in six years by robbers.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Narendra Patel of Star Deli at 2451 Fifth Ave. N has been shot twice in six years by robbers.

ST. PETERSBURG — The city soon may require convenience store owners to install surveillance systems and take other security measures to protect against the kind of robbers who have shot five store clerks over the last three months.

The City Council today will discuss a proposed ordinance that would force owners to harden their stores to crime.

Store owners wonder how much the city will force them to spend.

Low-cost upgrades like height markers by the doors are easy to install, and it shouldn't be too much trouble for owners to clear store windows so passersby can see inside.

But will the store owners also have to spend thousands of dollars for more expensive requirements, such as bullet-resistant enclosures or security guards?

If the owners can't afford the new measures, police Chief Chuck Harmon said, they won't support them.

"Part of my concern is, are we going to price them out of business. Especially with the economy the way it is," Harmon told the council last week at a workshop on the proposed ordinance.

The law is being proposed after five clerks and a St. Petersburg detective were wounded by gunfire in five south Pinellas robberies over an eight-week span. No one has died, but the shootings have left the city rattled.

When Harmon met with the council last week, he had statistics that show how easy it is for criminals to get away with robbing these stores.

Of the 113 convenience store and gas station robberies in the city since 2006, robbers got way with cash 83 percent of the time. The robber used a gun, knife or Taser in 89 percent of the holdups. But only 35 percent of the robberies resulted in an arrest. The department said that's actually pretty good considering the arrest rate for robberies in similar-sized cities across the country is 22.7 percent.

The chief supports language in the new ordinance that requires surveillance systems, height markers and drop safes. He also approves of requiring that store windows be cleared of anything that obstructs the view of the counter from the street.

He also recommended that the council require owners to install an electronic door lock that would allow clerks to control who gets into the store.

But the law also proposes that stores robbed after March 12, 2009, undergo a safety review. Then they'll 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.

Though there are loopholes, Sid Shah, a local store owner and spokesman for the Asian American Convenience Stores Association, said independent store owners would be scared by such expensive requirements.

"A lot of mom-and-pop stores would stop reporting crime," he said.

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.

Three weeks ago, he spent $10,000 to install a transparent 8-foot-by-16-foot polycarbonate enclosure around his cash register and to upgrade his security cameras. He had to empty his savings just to pay for the inch-thick, bullet-resistant material.

"The whole family wanted this," he said. "I don't like it. I've lost my freedom."

He also doesn't like the city telling independent owners how to protect their stores.

"Does Publix have to install an (electronic) door lock?" he asked. "Why do they expect it of us?"

St. Petersburg looks at rules to stop robbers; owners fear the cost 02/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 10:06am]
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