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Safety First

April 19, 1996
By: ELIZABETH MCKINLEY
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - It was the thought of her friend lying on the very floor where she worked, helpless after two blasts from a shotgun left her in a pool of her own blood, that drove Sarah Fink to demand something be done.

"Please help us," pleaded Sarah Fink, a coworker of Jennier Pribble. Pribble, 21, was gunned down shortly after 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 9 in a Bowling Green convenience store. "You can't go against a shotgun when you're by yourself."

Fink, who has since quit her job at the convenience store where Pribble was killed, said two workers very seldom are behind the counter at the same time. As a result, she said, one of the clerks potentially would have time to help

"I believe with all my heart that two would have made a difference," she said, as she held back tears. "We're the one that work here; we're the ones who mop the floors. We're reality; we know."

Fink testified before a House committee urging representatives to pass legislation that would step up security in all-night convenience stores. Among other provisions, the bill would require two workers to be on duty at all times.

Convenience stores contend having an extra clerk at night will cost considerable more money. One estimate puts the cost of having one extra late night employee at $14,000 to $18,000 per year, said Rick Fernandez, a loss-prevention manager for 7-Eleven stores.

"If they (the stores) use the excuse they don't have any money, they're lying," said Benjamin Michel, 20. Michel now works in a Columbia late-night convenience store, but worked in St. Louis stores for more than six months.

Michel said crime in late-night convenience stores was bad in St. Louis. He said two clerks might deter those who might be more prone to rob while only one clerk was working. Michel said problems frequently occur after the bars close and people are looking for more alcohol.

Despite the danger, all-night convenience store clerks continue to work alone at night, even when they say they feel safer with two workers.

Oscar Williams, 24, has been robbed twice while he worked in stores in Chicago. He now works in a Columbia all-night convenience store. Williams said he believes two workers would have made a difference.

"I don't think a person would be as ready to take a chance if there were two workers," he said. "Two cuts down the chances of something happening."

Although representatives of all-night convenience stores agree to many of the bill's provisions, including more lighting and making a phone away from the register accessible, stores contend that having two clerks on duty at all times will not necessarily deter crime. They say there is no conclusive evidence two workers on the job would help stop robberies or violent crime.

"There's no data that shows the effects of having two workers on duty," said John Pelzer, Missouri's director for the National Association of Convenience Stores. "Good data has yet to be determined."

The association cited FBI data showing crime dramatically dropping. In fact, robberies nationwide are down 6.2 percent from 1993, according to FBI statistics and convenience stores make up only 5.2 percent of all robberies in the nation. In a prepared statement, the association attributed this decline to employee training in crime prevention.

"Cash control, training and visibility standards - not the two-clerk ordinance" have been effective crime preventers, according to the report.

The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Phil Smith, said he thought convenience stores were hesitant to place two clerks on duty because of increased costs.

"How can you compare the cost of business against the cost of lives?" the Louisiana representative asked.

The bill passed committee after being watered-down. It has yet to be debated in the House.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill requiring basic safety measures in late-night convenience stores. This year's bill is different because it would mandate two workers on duty at all times.

In Columbia, the City Council approved regulations for security cameras and tougher safety requirements in response to a triple-clerk murder at a Casey's store two years ago. These laws became moot as last year's legislation supersedes city laws.