Police target late-night robberies Extra patrols set up to curtail holdups at convenience stores

September 08, 1996|By Alex Gordon | Alex Gordon,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

It's 10: 30 p.m. at the High's on Cradlerock Way -- robbed twice already this year -- and a noticeably uneasy clerk fumbles ++ as she tries to organize packs of cigarettes behind the counter. Her nerves are soothed only by the knowledge that just a half-hour remains until closing time.

"I don't like the shift at all," says the clerk, who works the 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at the Owen Brown village convenience store and spoke on condition her name not be used. "As soon as it gets dark, I get paranoid."

Although the Howard County Police Department recently launched an initiative aimed at curtailing street-level robberies -- and most convenience stores have safety devices such as video cameras and safes -- clerks and customers continue to be concerned about their safety.

Convenience stores, by their very name, imply accessibility -- for patrons and robbers alike.

The nine convenience-store robberies in Howard County during the first six months of this year account for about 14 percent of all commercial robberies and a little more than 6 percent of all robberies in the county. Arrests have been made in three of the nine robberies, police spokesman Sgt. Steven Keller says.

"Convenience stores have long been a favorite target for robbers," Keller says. "It's one of those things that happens to businesses. The stores can take measures, and we can take measures, but convenience stores are more likely to be a target when they are open in the wee hours of the morning."

To help reduce that likelihood, plainclothes police officers are patrolling outside stores in the villages of Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Town Center as part of the department's 10-week Robbery Suppression Program. The program, which began July 18, will end this month.

Because of its Owen Brown location, the High's on Cradlerock Way is not a beneficiary of this program. But the Royal Farm convenience store on Stevens Forest Road in Oakland Mills village -- only two miles away -- is.

There, James Meredith works the late shift -- 5 p.m. until closing at 1 a.m. He is a portrait of coolness, despite a bank robbery he experienced while in the Philippines years ago. "I sure as hell didn't move," he recalls, cracking a slight smile.

Although Meredith knows the night may come when he finds himself peering down the hollow darkness of a gun's barrel, it is only an afterthought.

"I've been around the block," says Meredith, 42, who is attending day classes to earn a business management degree. "I grew up with guns, served two tours of duty in Vietnam, have had a gun pointed at me and have been shot at."

The Royal Farm on Stevens Forest Road was robbed in February and, according to Keller, the police spokesman, no arrests have been made.

"What can you do other than give them the money?" says Katina Parker, who has worked with Meredith on the late shift since July.

Meanwhile, outside the Royal Farm, a plainclothes patrol officer clears a throng of clamorous teens loitering on the curb at the Oakland Mills Village Center.

"Being out here is being the eyes of what's going on," says the officer, who asked to remain unidentified. "Because the village center closes at 10, the Royal Farm is the hub because it is the only place open. Since we've started, the [street] robberies have seemed to stop, and it has calmed down a lot. The word gets out -- they know we're out here."

Even for the generally unruffled Meredith, the presence of police officers -- whom he playfully refers to as "Starsky and Hutch" -- is a welcome sight.

An off-duty detective, who says he stopped by because he was thirsty, knows that for late-night clerks, police officers are the most appreciated customers.

"I think the clerks are glad to see us come in -- wouldn't you be?" he asks rhetorically. "Just having an officer's presence here definitely deters crime and is good PR."

And on this night -- just two nights after a man was assaulted and robbed of $8 while walking home from the store -- the Royal Farm will draw a host of people who come out of routine, necessity or boredom.

Kenny Koons, who lives down the street from the Royal Farm, says time doesn't matter when it comes to ice cream.

"I have no reservations -- I go out of my way for Royal Farm ice cream," he says. "People tell me I should be nervous, but I could get mugged anywhere. I could go home right now and get mugged in my driveway."

Unlike Koons, Cherie White goes out of her way to avoid convenience stores late at night, but at 11: 15 p.m., returning home from a 15-hour workday, she needs milk and has no other choice.

"I come here only when I have to," White says, requesting a reporter's identification before answering questions in the Royal Farm store's parking lot, which is encircled by four streetlights. "I hate coming here late at night, but the groceries are closed. The atmosphere makes me uneasy. Maybe it's a stereotype -- convenience stores late at night -- but it's enough to make you think."

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