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Independent Florida C-Stores Respond to Escalating Violence

LAKELAND, Fla. - Despite the deaths of five convenience store owners or family members since 2000 in Polk County, Fla., some retailers are unwilling to implement safety measures, reports The Ledger.

Florida state law requires that stores open between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. have employees trained in robbery deterrence, a lighted parking lot, height markers at the entrance, an unobstructed view of the cash register from outside the building, a policy limiting the amount of cash kept on hand between those hours and a drop safe or similar cache secured to the floor or counter that weighs at least 500 pounds.

But these rules don't apply to family-owned stores and some owners prefer it that way, despite the dangers they encounter.

Polk Sheriff Grady Judd said that the sheriff's office will send deputies to any convenience store that requests it to do safety surveys and educate the owners about how to run their business more safely.

"There's a certain amount of frustration on the part of law enforcement because of the apathy of some store owners," Judd said. "This is not a matter of losing $50 in a robbery. It's about their life."

One simple step is to keep store windows near the cash register clear of signs and advertisements so people can see what's happening inside.

"Store windows need to be clear so we can see all of the movement inside that store," Judd said.

But Donna Abu-Khdair, who owns a BP convenience store in Lakeland and has taken it over since her husband was shot and killed during a robbery in the store, takes a different view. She doesn't want people to see in. Plastered across her store's windows are posters and advertisements, which she said prevent would-be robbers from seeing how much cash is in the register.

Down the street, at another family-owned BP station, Sujata Mudan also shields her register from view with pictures covering the windows and doors.

"We put the signs up for our safety," she said. "People stand there and try to look in the window, to see how much is in the cash register."

But they're not keeping themselves safer, said Rosemary Erickson, a San Diego-based sociologist and founder of the Athena Research Corp., who has been studying convenience store safety since the 1970s.

Her research, involving interviews with nearly 1,000 people convicted of robbing convenience stores, aims to develop practices that will make convenience stores safer.

7-Eleven Inc. collaborated with Erickson in an effort to reduce robberies in its stores. In 60 stores, robbery deterrence methods recommended by former armed robbers were used, and in 60 stores no changes were made.

Robberies decreased by 30 percent in the stores where deterrence methods were implemented. "Uncluttered stores that are clearly visible from the street are not attractive to robbers," according to a 7-Eleven fact sheet.

"7-Eleven stores are like fishbowls -- brightly lit at night, windows facing the sales area are kept free of signage and merchandise so police and others passing by can see inside clearly. Cash register stations are located in the front of the stores so they are especially visible, and drop safes are used to keep cash levels low in the register," the fact sheet said.

Some of Erickson's recommendations, including clear windows, were used in drafting the Convenience Business Security Act, passed by the Florida Legislature in 1992.

But the law only applies to stores open between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Also exempt are stores where the owner or a member of the owner's immediate family works on the premises between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Abu-Khdair's store meets both exemptions because it's family-owned and not open all night.

"I don't know why they have those exemptions," Erickson said. "I believe that if the legislation applied to them, it would be effective in reducing robberies and homicides."

For would-be robbers, the family-owned stores offer tempting but potentially dangerous targets. Erickson said many independent convenience-store owners own guns and are more likely to fight back than a chain store employee. However, small shops often make themselves targets by keeping lots of cash around.

"Here's what the robbers say to us: `I know it's riskier to rob a mom-and-pop, but I know I'll get a lot more money,' " Erickson said.

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