Two Prince George’s County Council members hope to better protect late-night convenience stores by requiring the businesses to better prepare for robberies.
Two council bills presented by Eric Olson (D-Dist. 3) of College Park and Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9) of Upper Marlboro call for specific safety requirements for every convenience store open within the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., such as operating two high-definition, color surveillance cameras, installing a safe on-site to keep large amounts of cash away from the register, posting “No loitering” signs and providing training for employees.
“When looking at crime statistics, a significant portion of our robberies are happening at convenience stores in the middle of the night,” Olson said. “If we can take measures to reduce the opportunities for robberies at convenience stores overnight, that’s going to drive down numbers across the board.”
The bills are similar, but each has varying requirements. Franklin’s bill requires two employees working on site at all times, or if not, allowing only window access to patrons between midnight and 6 a.m.; Olson’s bill makes no mention of staffing requirements. Olson’s bill calls for owners and employees to be trained in safety and criminal trespass programs within 30 days of the legislation’s passing, while Franklin’s bill makes no mention of safety training.
Olson and Franklin said as the legislation moves forward in the public safety and fiscal management committee, the council will likely take the best content from each bill and combine them into one.
Christina Cotterman, a county police spokeswoman, said there were 1,811 robberies in the county last year, and 335 of them were at commercial establishments. She said the police department does not categorize robberies by the type of commercial establishment.
As of Sept. 27 this year, county police had reported 1,155 total robberies and 211 commercial robberies, down from a total of 1,227 robberies countywide and 239 commercial robberies at the same point last year.
“We’re seeing a very positive trend in both overall robberies and commercial robberies,” Cotterman said.
The councilmen said the improvements would not only deter robberies but also provide better tools to catch suspected robbers.
“Our crime numbers are looking good. We’re certainly doing better than we have previously, but we want to continue to drive crime numbers down,” Olson said.
John Erzen, a spokesman for the Prince George’s state’s attorney’s office, said while current quality of surveillance cameras used has not caused prosecutors to lose cases, higher definition cameras and a wider use of cameras would help prosecute suspects.
“In terms of quality and things like that, a lot of things we see that sometimes cause problems is that footage can be taped over if it’s on a quick loop and multiple tapings over can lead to poor video quality,” he said. “Certainly, we support legislation that could ultimately provide us with another tool in helping us to secure convictions.”
Franklin said he hopes business owners will recognize the need for improved safety measures to not only keep themselves and their employees safe but also improve business.
“We just don’t have strong enough safety measures at a number of our convenience stores,” he said. “This is about keeping residents safe and making the point that a business has a responsibility to provide a safe environment on their premises.”
Some convenience store owners say they welcome the idea of new safety requirements even though they already have measures in place.
Peter Chong said he has owned the BP gas station on Route 1 in College Park for 26 years and has never been subject to a robbery.
“Well, safety comes first, but we have a lot of that in place anyway,” Chong said, noting his two surveillance cameras, a safe to store larger amounts of cash and safety training. “We do what we can to protect ourselves. Safety is a number one priority.”
He added, however, that the legislation may be poorly received by some longtime store owners.
“This is a very volatile market. There’s so much up and down that you just cannot keep up,” Chong said of new regulations. “There are already so many rules and regulations that are put on us that it’s hard to keep up. And profit margins are very thin.”
Jay Mistry, a 7-Eleven franchise owner of seven years in Forestville, said he has been the victim of several armed robberies but never been injured.
“Safety is a concern everywhere, not just at a 7-Eleven. It can happen to everything,” he said. “We already have cameras and an electronic safe, but [the legislation] is good because it can help out everybody.”
Some in the county’s business community said as long as the costs associated with making public safety upgrades aren’t too high, store owners would be willing to comply.
M.H. Jim Estepp, president of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, said businesses are not opposed to anything that is reasonable and will benefit customers and increase safety for employees.
“Business in general is leary of government regulations that solve the problems that the government is established to deal with,” he said. “But in this day and age, given the amount of crime in the D.C. area and the strains put on the police departments, anytime they have additional tools at their disposal, it’s going to be beneficial to a business, its employees and its customers.”
Estepp also stressed the importance of a public forum to make sure the proposals are well-conceived. Olson said a public forum seeking community input is planned, but has not yet been scheduled.
According to Olson’s bill, store owners would have an 18-month grace period to meet the requirements, and noncompliant stores must pay a $500 fine.
“I certainly hope [owners] would be supportive,” he said. “This would increase the safety of their employees and ultimately it would benefit the county overall, which I would think they would want.”