City police try to get handle on rash of business robberies

SWAT team visiting businesses to check security plans amid 55 percent increase

April 21, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

It happened in a flash. Anusha Singh was serving a customer at her family's pizza place in Northeast Baltimore when two men burst in, one of them brandishing a handgun, and demanded money from the register.

"I didn't know how to react," said Singh, 28. "It just happened in two minutes, and then they ran."

Faced with a sharp increase in commercial robberies across the city this year, the Police Department has been focusing its attention in recent weeks on helping business owners like Singh improve security measures that can help thwart a robbery or at least help police respond quickly and track down the culprits.

That effort includes sending SWAT team members around the city to make face-to-face contacts. On a recent weekday afternoon, Lt. Scott Mezan and Officer Daraine Harris popped into liquor stores, a nail salon and mom-and-pop groceries to check security systems and make sure business owners know how to reach police.

"Do you have a panic button?" Harris asked the manager of an apparel store along a busy commercial stretch of Monument Street in East Baltimore.

"Right here on my hip," she said, pointing to a device that alerts authorities when there's trouble.

As of April 16, there had been 188 commercial robberies this year compared with 121 during the same period of time last year, a 55 percent increase accentuated by a robbery spree on a Sunday morning this month in which police believe a duo driving a green Buick LeSabre committed as many as a dozen robberies in a span of just a few hours in Mount Vernon and East and West Baltimore.

The biggest increases have been in the Police Department's Southwestern District (22 this year, compared with three in the corresponding period last year), Western District (16, compared with four), and Southern District (19, compared with six).

In addition to business checks, police this week revived a "Citywide Robbery" website where they are uploading surveillance photos, video and wanted posters in hopes of generating tips. Residents and business owners can sign up to receive alerts when the site is updated.

The robberies are more likely to affect the city's corner stores, where frightened owners often do business behind thick bulletproof glass and exchange items and cash through revolving doors to avoid direct access. In one West Baltimore liquor store, surveillance video shows a young suspect lingering inside, then striking a patron with a handgun and demanding he empty his pockets.

But corner stores are hardly alone. The business checks by Mezan and Harris also included a fast-food restaurant near the Johns Hopkins University, where employees were robbed at the drive-through window, and a medium-size chain grocery store that was recently robbed even with a security guard standing watch.

Some have sophisticated, elaborate security systems, while others, like a carryout store in the Frankford neighborhood, take their chances. Not only did the store not have a camera system, but a door leading to the cash register was open with the keys dangling from the lock.

"The vast majority of the businesses we've checked this afternoon have some kind of security plan, and some are a little lax," Mezan said. "Unfortunately, all the businesses aren't as prepared as they should be."

Police don't ascribe a particular reason for the surge in business robberies, though some wonder if they are a result of the recession.

"People are getting laid off, losing their homes and stuff, and the kids are acting up," said Charles Frisby, 53, a patron at a Payless Shoes store visited by police. "Ever since this recession, money's getting tight, and you know, people's needs are not being met."

But Frisby said people need to keep faith that things will turn around. "Trust in Him, and he gonna make a way for us. It's not the end of the world."

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