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Tampa Bay convenience stores look at safety after violent robberies in St. Petersburg

This is owner Indravadan Patel’s view when he’s behind the counter at the Suhani convenience store at 2539 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N in St. Petersburg. Patel was shot during a holdup at the store Wednesday night.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

This is owner Indravadan Patel’s view when he’s behind the counter at the Suhani convenience store at 2539 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N in St. Petersburg. Patel was shot during a holdup at the store Wednesday night.

TAMPA — It's daytime, and Eve Mejia is joking with the bread delivery man.

The side door to the Farm Stores on Henderson Boulevard is wide open, letting Florida's winter breeze flow through the tiny drive-through food mart.

Around noon on a Thursday, this doesn't feel at all like an unsafe place. Mejia's 2-year-old is playing at her feet.

But 2006 statistics gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 14 percent of workplace homicides took place in convenience stores and gas stations. In Florida last year, the same kinds of stores were robbed at gunpoint 4,005 times, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In the wake of two unsolved convenience store shootings in St. Petersburg this week and a string of similar crimes in Tampa over the weekend, Tampa Bay area proprietors are taking stock of what — if anything — can be done to increase clerk safety.

The Farm Stores has cameras and silent alarms, and takes extra safety precautions.

But even Mejia knows that when the holiday season meets an economic recession, people look for quick ways to get money — such as holdups.

"Let's face it," Mejia said. "People are out of work. It's going to happen."

But some of what has happened here can't be explained.

In each of the five recent cases, the victims cooperated, handing over money as demanded, and still the bullets flew. Four of them were injured.

Jeff Service, a deputy in the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Bureau, said it's a scenario that doesn't have an easy remedy.

Service and Tampa police Officer Roy Paz both examine convenience stores and suggest ways to increase clerk safety.

Among the advice they usually give: Stores should be well lit, and windows should be clear of placards that block visibility. Bulletproof windows, well-placed digital security cameras and silent alarms also are deterrents.

But the single most important tip they both give clerks: Act on your instinct.

"If you think something's not right, it usually isn't," Service said. "When we interview victims, they frequently say things like, 'I just didn't have a good feeling when he walked in.' "

Florida law has tried to make working in such stores safer.

In 1992, after a spate of violence against gas station clerks, the Convenience Business Security Act became law.

Largely opposed by convenience store lobbyists who argued that small businesses could not afford to comply, the law mandates that every convenience store open overnight must have a silent alarm, security cameras, a lighted parking lot, clear windows and safes (the clerk isn't given the combination) so registers do not hold large amounts of money.

Stores where violent crimes have occurred must enact one of four additional safety measures. For example, having a security guard from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

"What more can you do?" asked Samer Hamed, 30, of Sunshine Foods in St. Petersburg off 62nd Avenue S.

The store was robbed in July during the day by four men. The recent shootings have Hamed uneasy not only about safety, but also its impact on business.

"We're already in a recession," he said.

Jim Smith, president and chief executive of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, was surprised by the local shootings.

"Rarely do I hear about robberies anymore that involve violence," said Smith, whose organization represents 5,300 of the Florida's 9,000 convenience stores. "A number of people believe there's a lot of money in convenience stores, when in truth there's generally not more than $50 in the cash register."

At Gita Food Store on Third Street S in St. Petersburg, Meghana Shah feels an extra bit of security.

Besides the cameras and the video, there's Max — the imposing German shepherd and family dog that has come to work with Shah every day for six years.

"He's great for protection," she said.

Times researcher John Martin and Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay convenience stores look at safety after violent robberies in St. Petersburg 12/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 8, 2008 11:21am]
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