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    Holdups sharpen safety focus

    A rash of robberies in the bay area has put a spotlight on security in the fast-food business.

    By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 24, 2002


    TAMPA -- They're open late, often staffed by teenagers, and they can have lots of cash inside.

    And they are getting robbed.

    In the past three weeks, at least 20 fast-food restaurants in the bay area have been struck. Some criminals are breaking in by forcing open the drive-through windows. Others are smashing glass doors and prying open back entrances.

    Employees have found themselves looking down the barrels of guns, forced to lie on the floor, shoved into food coolers.

    "To a certain extent, the fast-food industry is a victim of opportunistic crimes," said Eric Schlosser, the author of the national bestseller Fast Food Nation, which looked critically at the industry. "But the industry could be doing more to protect itself and its young employees."

    Authorities said they believe that 12 of the most recent robberies were committed by three men. One suspect has been arrested, and police are searching for two other men. The most recent robbery linked to them occurred Saturday at a McDonald's on U.S. 19 in Pasco County. About 5:30 a.m., two armed men smashed through a glass door, forced employees to open a safe and escaped with cash.

    Restaurant owners must approach the security issue delicately: How do they keep employees safe without turning the colorful, family-friendly restaurants into frightening, plexiglass-and-steel fortresses?

    Most large fast-food chains, such as McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell, use some tools to deter theft, such as panic alarms and video surveillance. Most have procedures to deposit large sums of cash into a store safe, said consultants who specialize in fast-food restaurant security. But some restaurants only allow managers or assistant managers to make the so-called "cash drops." Other employees, such as those who work at night, may not be authorized to make such deposits.

    Schlosser and other experts have several suggestions on how restaurants can create a safer workplace for employees:

    Technology. New two-way video and audio surveillance allows restaurant employees to communicate with a security company or a police dispatch. Also, cameras linked to the Internet are available, so restaurant managers can get a peek into the restaurant at any time.

    Training. By improving and increasing deposit procedures, there will be less cash on hand. Wolfgang Halbig, a safety consultant in Heathrow, suggests that restaurant owners hold mandatory robbery awareness training every few months. "If employees are not properly trained, they show fear and panic and they may get shot and killed," he said.

    Background checks. Some fast-food robberies are committed by people who once worked in the restaurant. By checking an applicant's background and weeding out people with lengthy criminal backgrounds, restaurant owners may reduce the number of robberies.

    "There is nothing more important than the safety of our employees," said Bob Conigliaro, the vice president of community relations at Caspers, which owns 50 McDonald's restaurants in Hillsborough, eight of which have been robbed in recent weeks. "I think we take appropriate precautions; if need be, we will take further precautions."

    Conigliaro said his company uses cameras, training and drop safes, but would not elaborate on other measures for fear of giving too many details to potential robbers.

    It is unclear how many fast-food restaurants are robbed in any given year; most law enforcement agencies don't keep statistics on such specific crimes.

    There are about 200 robberies of various kinds every month in Tampa, said Sgt. Gene Kelley, who oversees that division. "Fast-food places are the hot thing this week. A couple of weeks ago, it was banks."

    But banks and other places that have been targeted by robbers -- gas stations and convenience stores -- have developed elaborate safety procedures.

    Schlosser said that restaurants could eliminate many of the problems by closing early, or by not staffing the more dangerous shifts with young workers.

    In the 1980s, the convenience store industry was forced to change the way it does business after a spate of brutal robberies and killings.

    Legislators mandated some changes. If a violent crime occurs or has occurred at a convenience store since July 1, 1989, the store is required to do one of the following: staff the store with at least two employees at night; install a security barrier; or provide a guard at night. Owners can also lock the business at night and handle transactions through an indirect pass-through window, or close the business between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

    Joseph Kinney, a workplace safety expert from North Carolina, says fast-food chains should consider making such changes. If the restaurants don't, he said, lawmakers should step in.

    "The state of Florida should take the time to see if minimum standards are appropriate," said Kinney, who runs safespace.com, a nonprofit safety Web site.

    But even the seemingly best security measure -- an armed security guard -- won't stop a robber.

    On March 9, 2001, four teens in ski masks tried to rob a McDonald's on N Dale Mabry Highway. Off-duty sheriff's Deputy Charles Freeman was guarding the restaurant that night. In a shootout with the four robbers, Freeman shot and killed 18-year-old Jason Underwood, the group's ringleader. The deputy took a bullet in the upper leg.

    One of the teens involved was charged with attempted murder for the deputy's injury and felony murder for Underwood's death because he participated in a crime that resulted in those acts.

    That teen was sentenced in May to 10 years in prison; the other two teens will be sentenced this summer.

    -- Times staff writer Amy Herdy and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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