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HPD requires new security measures for stores


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  • HPD requires new security measures for stores

    There are 1,000 convenience store robberies per year in Houston

    At a Chevron convenience store in north Houston, a customer knocks curiously on thick new panes of bulletproof glass running along the countertop.

    "Safety for customers," jokes store clerk Zafar Said Rizwi.

    "It's that bad?" The man asks, laughing.

    "That bad," Rizwi says, nodding.

    The 37-year-old immigrant from Pakistan has worked the graveyard shift at the Chevron on the corner of Collingsworth and Elysian for two years. He's been robbed at gunpoint. He's witnessed a stabbing. He's broken up drunken brawls. And then there's the time a woman high on crack cocaine came inside the store and started taking her clothes off.

    These are typical scenes in the sometimes dangerous world of convenience stores. Houston averages about 1,000 robberies and 10 homicides at such stores annually.

    "A convenience store is a convenient target for the bad guys," says officer Muzaffar Siddiqi of the Houston Police Department. "There's cash handy. It's open late. It's easy to get in and out. So we have to make it difficult."

    To that end, HPD has begun enforcing new regulations this summer that require stores to register with police, provide employees with safety training and install equipment like drop safes, panic buttons and cameras.

    If stores do not comply, police can fine them up to $500.

    It's the first time a major metropolitan area has started such a comprehensive program targeting crime at convenience stores, says Assistant Chief John Trevino of the Houston Police Department.

    "The ultimate goal of this ordinance is to make the convenience stores safe for the employees that work there and safe for the communities that shop there," he says.

    HPD is still trying to spread the word to store owners, however. As of last Friday, 158 stores had registered out of an estimated 2,000.

    The Chevron store on Collingsworth has yet to register with Houston police, so the new requirements are news to Rizwi and his fellow clerk, Luis Cera.

    The store already has two panic alarms, surveillance cameras and new $7,000 bulletproof glass — an expensive feature the ordinance does not require. What the clerks would really prefer, though, is increased police patrols in their neighborhood.

    The store where they work sits on a corner that draws transients, homeless and its share of crime. Across the street is a run-down carwash where drug dealers lurk.

    "Everybody thinks outside this country that America is a very rich place," Rizwi says. "My one cousin came here, very new from Pakistan, and one day I brought him here. He said, 'Man, what is this?' I said, 'Man, this is America.' He was like, 'I want to go back home!' "

    Drunks and addicts sometimes fight in the street or in the store, Cera says, as he makes change for a customer one recent night.

    As if on cue, a wiry man with a bedraggled beard stumbles inside the store. He trips in the doorway, losing his hat.

    Unruly drunks – or worse
    Cera, who moved to Houston from Mexico 20 years ago, has been working in the store for four years. He likes to chat and joke with regular customers, many of whom he's bestowed with nicknames. The bearded man is "Tonto."

    "No, no beer for you, Tonto," Cera says.

    Tonto nearly keels over trying to rescue his baseball hat from the floor. He ogles a tub of ice filled with beer cans in front of the counter.

    "No, no beer. You drink too much," Cera says. "Forget about it."

    "Hey, I'm gonna get one can," Tonto says.

    "No," Cera replies. "No sir."

    "What's the problem I get one, one, one little bitty can?" asks Tonto. He scoops a chilled Budweiser out of the tub and places it on the counter, right in front of Cera, who puts it aside, out of Tonto's reach.

    Rizwi's had enough. He steps around the counter to haul Tonto outside for the second time that night.

    On his way back, Rizwi pulls a sliding metal gate across the store's plate glass windows and Cera shuts off the lights. Closing time.

    Most nights, they say, an unruly drunk is the worst they deal with. One evening last fall, though, they weren't so lucky.

    It was about 8 p.m. on Sept. 17, Cera's 41st birthday. Rizwi was in the back office when two armed men in masks barged into the store. Cera threw up his hands as the handful of customers inside dove for the door, scattering into the night.

    Rizwi returned to the counter to find one of the men holding Cera hostage and demanding money from the register.

    "I say, 'OK, OK,' and he takes the money and runs very fast," Rizwi recalled. He says the robbers got away with about $1,300.

    Rizwi tries to be philosophical about the experience, but he's hedging his bets. He usually keeps a gun with him these days.

    "Before, when I started this job, I was very afraid, but now, you know, I'm used to it," he says. "It's part of my life."

    Cera just shrugs. He finishes adding up the day's till and deposits a wad of bills in the store's safe.

    "You know, the money's going to come back," Cera says. "But the life — how?"

    Cera and Rizwi's profession is cursed by one of the highest annual homicide rates among retail industries, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. In Houston, there were 12 murders at convenience stores in 2007, a 33 percent increase from 2006.

    So far this year, HPD has recorded at least four murders at convenience stores, including one at the Valero Handi Stop on West Gulf Bank on April 16.

    'Getting bad everywhere'
    That afternoon, two robbers fired several shots through the store's window, striking clerk Arshad Rasheed, 46, in the chest and killing him.

    The two then fired through the locked front door and forced their way inside, police said. They took the cash register and headed for a nearby apartment complex.

    Police charged Teddy Bernard Walker, 22, with capital murder. The other suspect, a 15-year-old male, is being referred to Harris County Juvenile Probation authorities on a charge of capital murder.

    "It's getting bad everywhere now," Handi Stop clerk Ali Khan said last week as he rings up cans of Olde English 800 malt liquor. "They have to push the owners to do safety."

    The Handi Stop now closes by midnight instead of staying open around the clock. A bulletproof barrier has been installed around the counter.

    "You feel secure behind the glass, but then you wonder why do you need all this?" Khan said. "It's the land of opportunity and the first thing, you have to be in a cage."

    Like Khan, who came to Houston from Pakistan nine years ago, many of the clerks who work in convenience stores are immigrants. Some work at night because they're studying or working another job during the day. Often, they represent the best hope for relatives who depend on the money they send home every month. That's why their deaths are so devastating, said HPD's Siddiqi.

    "If the robber kills this one guy then it's like killing the whole family," he said.

    Leaving families behind
    A year ago last month, a 38-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh was working one such late shift when his family's world shattered. Mohammad Khan was shot to death during a robbery at the Speedy Mart in the 9400 block of Harwin, leaving behind a wife who was two months pregnant.

    For more than two weeks after Khan's death, his widow was so distraught she couldn't speak. Even a year later, words choke in her throat when she tries to talk about him.

    "It's hard," Sahida Monny says at last, brushing tears from her eyes with the edge of her sari. On her lap squirms the couple's 5 1/2 -month-old son, Efaz Khan. Monny thinks he has his father's face.

    The 23-year-old is raising her son alone, far from her family in Bangladesh. She's trying to obtain a visa for her mother, but even if she fails, Monny is determined to stay in the city where her husband brought her three years ago, seeking a better life for their children.

    Khan took the job at the convenience store because the duties didn't require special training or much talking, a plus for an immigrant still shy about his English. But the risks were substantial. Khan was robbed more than once before the fatal shooting. Each time he handed over cash from the register, even his own wallet. He told his wife no amount of money was worth dying for.

    'It's very risky'
    On the night of July 14, 2007, two men armed with pistols walked into the Speedy Mart about an hour before closing time. One robber went behind the counter with Khan, while his partner held a gun on another employee.

    The robbers took the bills tray from the cash register before shooting Khan several times. He bled to death at the store.

    "Sometimes I told him to leave his job," Monny says. "The same day, even, he told me, 'I don't want to work over here. It's very risky.' He was trying to get a job at a hotel."

    [email protected]
    ‘Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.’
    Oscar Wilde

  • #2
    HPD has begun enforcing new regulations this summer that require stores to register with...

    problem is, everyone is hurting right now. Can these newer store afford to do this?
    its almost a lose lose for them...
    either put these changes or lose money..but if you cant afford it you lose money anyway.
    ‘Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.’
    Oscar Wilde


    • #3
      That's what I was thinking. I live in Houston "Alief" and it's a bad part of town. I like the thought behind this, but I question whether or not a government agency should be able to stipulate what businesses do in a free market society that involves such large sums of cash.

      Now obviously there are some instances where it is necessary for customer safety, like fire and health codes as well as building codes.

      Keep in mind most convenience stores have tiny profit margins that keep them on a tight budget.


      • #4
        Now, what I would like to see is more cities forcing these stations to not only do this, but to require the clerks to require customers prepay for gas. We have one gas station chain down here, that their corporate policy forbids their clerks from making customers prepay
        Let your watchword be duty, and know no other talisman of success than labor. Let honor be your guiding star in your dealing with your superiors, with your fellows, with all. Be as true to a trust reposed as the needle to the pole. Stand by the right even to the sacrifice of life itself, and learn that death is preferable to dishonor. ~ Gov. Richard Coke, October 4, 1876


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