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</I>PART 2 IN A SERIES:</I> Tough on Crime

30 Jan, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

News reports that violent crime is on the increase are so common they seem almost de rigueur, and while most people worry more about violent crime at home, working at a video store can put people in harm's way, too.

Video stores are popular robbery targets for the same reasons that convenience stores are, Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) VP of public affairs Sean Bersell said. The industries share common traits like store size, location and hours, staffing levels and a largely cash trade.

Other factors are also common to both types of business: Stores often have easy avenues of escape; they are easy to case during most vulnerable time periods; mom-and-pop stores are a significant portion of the industry; and store personnel are few and may be distracted or not notice suspicious behavior -- though, unlike in a convenience store, patrons have good reason to hang around a video store for more than a few minutes.

Other experts agree. The good news is, because the businesses are similar, they can use many of the same crime prevention and survival strategies.

“In the case of either industry, the key is to have effective measures promoted at all stores,” said Jeff Lenard, spokesperson for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).

Mom-and-pop operations may feel powerless compared to chains and their resources, but improving store security need not always be complicated or expensive.

“There are low-cost or no-cost ideas that can be implemented,” Lenard said. “Watch out for vested interests of [security product] vendors.”

On the other hand, local law enforcement often has some kind of community liaison office and most will, upon request, visit a business to assess it for vulnerability to robbery and other crimes. Usually such a visit will generate several suggestions for improving safety.

Many ideas come from years of trial and error in the convenience store industry and the leading crime prevention guru for NACS, sociologist Rosemary Erickson.

Store Design Is Critical
Erickson, principal of Athena Research and author of several books on violent crime and its prevention, has interviewed thousands of convicted robbers (some also murderers) to find out why they committed the crimes and what would have deterred them. The results of her work and the work of others in crime prevention adds up to one acronym: CPTED, or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. The tactics are often free or inexpensive to put into practice.

The three prongs of CPTED are territoriality, access control and surveillance.

“Start at the outer perimeter and move in. The No. 1 thing robbers are concerned about is an escape route,” Erickson said. “Put fences where you can around the [parking area] perimeter. Make it look difficult to get away. Limit the number of entrances and exits into the lot and store. After dark, you might close off an entrance to the lot with a chain. Turnstiles [at store doors] are another form of slowing escape.”

Chain-link or open fencing around a store is best, she noted, because of another problem common at video stores: obstructed sightlines. Those huge key art one-sheets hanging in store windows may promote the latest release, but too often they also advertise to crooks that nobody can see into the store from the outside.

Which brings the surveillance component into play.

“Lighting is critical. Move displays from blocking visibility,” Erickson advised. “A clear line of sight from outside to the cashier is essential. Train employees to look for suspicious behavior and be aware of their surroundings. Greet customers; let them know you are aware they came in. That way, the robber knows he has been seen before doing something. Good customer service is also a good robbery prevention measure.”

Criminals Know Your Routine
Cash-handling practices can also create risk that can be inexpensively reduced.Robbers are often smarter than they are given credit for and pay attention to things a store owner might not.

“Bank robbers keep bank hours, and video store robbers keep video store hours. They know what your hours are,” Erickson said. “The most dangerous times are at opening and closing. The potential robber knows that is when the money is being moved. The money will be moved from the register to the safe at night and from the safe to the register in the morning.”

It's not enough just to use a drop safe or other cash-handling safeguards, it's important to advertise them. When the convenience store industry started using drop safes, a rash of violence ensued because bandits mistook honesty for resistance. The violence declined when stores began posting prominent signs saying clerks had access to little cash.

“You don't want to surprise the robbers about anything. If there is no money, you need to post signs saying you have low cash in the register,” Erickson said. “You make it clear that it's low cash by not changing large bills. Also, the other thing robbers do is frequently come in and case the joint by looking to see what is in the till, usually two to three hours before committing the robbery.”

Do Background Checks
Employees and former employees may also be dangerous. Pre-employment background checks are an important crime prevention tool, Erickson said.

“We do see inside jobs on these robberies because they are familiar with the money management,” she said, adding, “Former employees [in a robbery] are extremely risky because they know they have the risk of being recognized.”

Discharged employees are also dangerous because, like jilted domestic abusers, they know they have nothing left to lose. Employers should take care to follow rules about how they let people go, Erickson said.

“Make sure there is venting time and take special measures if the person has appeared disgruntled,” she said.

What to Do When Crime Occurs
What if the store owner has taken all the environmental and management steps available and finds himself or herself, staring at a knife or gun anyway? It's not too late to escape injury, Erickson said.

“The advice the robbers say is don't resist. Give up the money. Don't talk, don't argue, don't stare; that's very important. Don't be a hero, and don't chase,” she said. “We don't want heroes in a robbery, because the odds are very low when the criminal comes through the door that you will be injured or killed.”

Following the criminals' advice is a best practice that should be taught to employees, even at the smallest business, because the correct response runs counter to instinct, Erickson said. In fact, mom-and-pops are often at greater risk because criminals know what to expect.

“The criminals say, ‘We know that the large chain [employees] are not likely to resist, they won't have a weapon, and we won't get much mone,’ Erickson said. “‘In the small operation, there is much greater risk, they will probably have a gun, but we will probably get more money.’

Have you experienced crime at your video business? Discuss your experiences and share prevention tips here.

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