For late-night clerks, boredom ... and danger

Convenience store clerk Ams Sanyand has a dependable way to keep from getting robbed – or, worse, shot – as the clock leans toward 2 a.m.

The trick, you see, is with the hands.

"They'll always send a guy in to see who's working and how he's handling the money," says Mr. Sanyand, a sharp-featured Gambian. "So I show everyone how I put their money in the drop-safe. You have to give them a reason not to rob you," he says, taking a break from sweeping a Swifty Serve in north Atlanta.

Like most late-night store workers, Sanyand would like a little more backup. Indeed, a string of midnight clerk murders here has begun a debate about whether 24-hour establishments are adequately protecting their workers.

Most industry officials blame societal shifts for the recent crimes, and say stores are safer than ever.

But even as convenience stores tout "psychological" safeguards such as brightly lit stores, drop-safes, and video cameras, critics accuse the industry of putting profit before people by not installing expensive plateglass in front of their cash registers. That option troubles some store owners, who don't want their customers to feel as they're shopping inside Fort Knox.

"What the major companies are doing now is putting up much bigger stores – and they're not putting security into these stores at at all," says Wilson Beach, the director of the Service Station Dealers of America and AlliedTrades in Bowie, Md.

On Aug. 19, a 16-year-old suspect shot and killed a convenience store clerk on Memorial Drive, taking his keys, locking the door, and stealing the clerk's car. It was the fourth such killing in as many weeks on Atlanta's streets.

There has been an uptick in store-clerk murders in the past three years, jumping from 78 to 111 between 1999 and 2000 alone. Although convenience-store robberies are down by 65 percent since the 1970s, the statistics have started rising again. Thus, a quarter century since convenience stores first started staying open round the clock, late-night clerking has become one of the most dangerous jobs in the country – especially relative to the wages of roughly $7.33 per hour.

Working the late shift

Sanyand took the job to make extra money for his family. But he also likes the late-night pace: "Not so much to do," he shrugs.

He may not have plate glass to cower behind, but he's trained to watch the money, lock the doors if suspicious characters pull up, and "treat a robber as if he's your best customer" should someone pull a gun.

Steered by research that began in the 1970s and is based on interviews with robbers, oil companies and other 24-hour "dealers" have been trying to deter robbers.

Instead of weapons and plate glass, the industry has hit upon another, more customer-friendly formula: brightly lit stores with "drop safes" that allow clerks to empty their tills regularly. Public phones are kept away from stores, because they were being used to scope places out. There are fewer signs in the windows – so the store "becomes a stage" where people on the outside can see what's happening inside. Clerks are also better trained: Experts point out that most people in robberies are not killed if they do what the criminal says.

"If you can step away from the specific tragedies that occur and look at the long-term effect of what the industry has done, overall, the picture is a good one," says Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores.

But some are dubious about industry measures in the wake of the recent Atlanta killings.

"It just seems as if some of the convenience store operators feel that these are expendable, replaceable, temporary employees, and so the safety issue is not a priority," says Barbara Mobley, a Georgia state legislator. "Going up against the powerful convenience store lobby is a tough thing to do, especially if you're unorganized," she says.

Today there are two states, Florida and Washington, that mandate safety features in gas stations. Georgia will consider a "plate glass" bill in January.

Indeed, in the early yawns of a Saturday morning, clerks say they support having plate glass and even on-site security. (In lieu of that, they give cops free pop and coffee when they stop by.) Shouting from behind the plateglass at a north Atlanta Chevron, Arif Asani calls his profession "very dangerous."

Mr. Asani's plate glass is a luxury that many stores forgo since it costs $8,000 to $13,000 to install. And even with it, he has to step into the open now and then.

Two not better than one

Other experimental safety measures haven't always worked. Already, a mandate by many oil companies to put two people on the night shift at gas stations has backfired: more clerk killings, it turns out, happen when there are two people there. "They're killing the witnesses," says Mr. Beach.

Adequate safety is an issue that other types of retail stores may have to face as more of them move toward 24-hour operations. Now, even some beauty salons and drug stores keep their doors open at midnight.

"What people thought of as the lonely hours of the night may not be so lonely," says Rosemary Erickson, a sociology professor at San Diego State University who studies late-night crime. That "may reduce crime by increasing the number of eyes on the street," she says.

Shrugging his shoulders, Sanyand says he doesn't spend too much time worrying about the growing dangers of his job. "It'd be nice to have a little extra security, but I know that God is the ultimate protector."

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