On Crime & Security
In a previous column I wrote of major business disturbances, such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires. But there are also less catastrophic disturbances that can cost small business people time, money and personal suffering.
From shoplifting and vandalism to irate and/or intoxicated customers these disturbances can be truly bad for business.
I recently accompanied a Philadelphia police sergeant as he patrolled the 1st District in South Philadelphia. I told him that I was interested primarily in observing his interaction with the small businesses in his area of operation. The incidents we encountered that evening are no doubt duplicated in other business areas around the country.
Sgt. Jack Ryan is a former Marine who served in the first Gulf War. Tall and retaining his military bearing, Ryan is a 15-year police veteran who served as a detective in the Special Victims Unit for two years, and served as an uncover narcotics officer for eight years before that. Married, with two children, the 38-year-old officer received a degree in Criminal Justice from Temple University prior to joining the police force.
As we pulled out of the 1st District Headquarters' parking lot and hit the street, Ryan joked about his name being the same as the Tom Clancy hero.
Although the 1st District is predominately residential, there are also six business areas located there. The business areas include shopping malls with retail stores, restaurants and bars, office complexes, banks, and major industrial plants. There are 42, 000 people who reside there and thousands more come to work or shop each day. The 1st District officers handle about 45,000 incidents each year. Statistically, the 1st District is the second best district in the city.
"In our business districts here we see mostly retail theft," Ryan explained. "We see shoplifting and fraud, like bad credit cards and checks."
As we patrolled the streets Ryan pointed out a bank that had been held up only a few weeks before. Ryan said that the bank robber frightened the bank employees and the customers by brandishing what he claimed was a bomb.
"He was trying to be slick by using a fake bomb," Ryan explained. "But he was not that slick, as he was caught."
Ryan said that armed robbers are a serious problem, and that the police officers killed in the line of duty this year had all been killed by armed robbers. Ryan said criminals often commit robberies to finance crack cocaine start-up businesses.
"One guy committed armed robbery just to get money to buy crack in bulk. Then he could break it down and make the sales."
Ryan pointed out a market place, stating that it had been robbed a couple of times in the past. The store's woman proprietor worked alone behind an open counter. As the market lacked any form of security, Ryan said the place was a magnet for crime. He said he often tells business people that they should install a security alarm system, along with cameras.
"Businesses would do better if they had good quality digital security systems," Ryan said. "This will prevent crime, but if something does happen, it creates a record that can be used to help us identify the suspect. A lot of businesses here have out-dated equipment or non-working equipment."
He spoke of one bar that had a good motion-sensored, digital system that covered every inch of the business. The system burned everything to a hard drive and held the record for a two-month rotation before it overwrote it. A young woman was robbed and raped there, he said, but the quality image helped the police identify the assailant and the police arrested him.
"All small businesses should have cameras," Ryan said.
During the course of the shift, Ryan responded to several incidents -- what the police call disturbances - involving small businesses. Ryan received a report of a man with a gun at a local variety store, and we sped to the scene. Two of the eight officers he supervises were there as we pulled up. One officer questioned an angry woman, while the other officer had taken a man across the street to separate them.
The officer questioning the woman told Ryan that the couple had been quarreling in the store and the man threatened to go home and get a gun. A crowd watched the loud argument outside the store and the variety store owner stood in the doorway watching the ruckus. Ryan motioned me back to the car, leaving his officers to restore order as he drove off, thankful that the report of a gun was erroneous.
Ryan next received a report concerning a disturbance at a store on Oregon Avenue, and he got there quickly, but he could not locate the business. It took three passes before we spotted the business. Thankfully, it was not a life and death situation. It turned out to be only a customer who lost his car keys.
Looking for someone's lost car keys is a not a police job, but as there were no pressing crimes to respond to at that time, one of Ryan's officers helped the customer look in the store and the parking lot for the car keys.
The lesson here that I would like to pass on -- besides don't call the police when you misplace your car keys -- is that businesses ought to clearly display both their business' name and the street address. A large sign should not only be visible for potential customers, but also for the police who might be racing to respond to a disturbance or a more serious crime.
Ryan's next stop was to a carpet business where the owner called the police because one of his saleswomen didn't like being paid on commission. She had insisted that she be paid upfront, and when the owner refused, she threatened him and his business by threatening to plant a bomb. The owner was visibly shaken. He gave the employee's name and contact information to Ryan, who said he would pass the information on to South Detectives, who would investigate the threat.
We were later called to a store where two drunks had caused a scene because the store didn't carry the item they wanted. The drunks were gone by the time we arrived. The store clerk was new, Ryan said, and he was upset. Ryan told one of his officers to keep an eye on the store while patrolling and monitor the calls to see if there were a recurrence.
Ryan also responded to a couple of domestic disturbances, pulled over a couple of cars for traffic violations, and he broke up a couple of rowdy groups. The shift ended with no major crimes committed, but I was able to observe the sort of disturbances that small businesses encounter in the course of doing business. They may have been minor incidents, but to business owners they can be major problems.
The Philadelphia Police Department, like most police departments in the U.S., has a crime prevention program, and Ryan and other officers often make suggestions to business owners. For example, business owners should train their employees on how to reduce opportunities for shoplifting and how to apprehend shoplifters. Install mirrors to eliminate blind spots in corners that might hide shoplifters.
Keep your merchandise away from exits to prevent shoplifters from doing a "grab-and-run." Design your business so that all customers must pass by your employees, be it a security guard or cashier. An electronic article surveillance system or some other kind of inventory control device is also recommended. The cash register should be inaccessible to customers, so that a thief can't reach over and grab the cash. Your dressing rooms and rest rooms should also be locked and monitored.
Train your employees to follow each credit card company's authorization procedures. They should be skeptical of a customer with only one credit card and one piece of identification. If you are suspicious of the customer, make a note of appearance, companions, any vehicle used, and what identification is used. The police investigating the crime will need this information.
Look for "ghost" numbers or letters. Many times criminals will change the numbers and/or name on a stolen card. They either melt the original name and numbers off or file them off. Both actions leave faint imprints of the original characters. Check to see if the signature on the card compares favorably with the signature on the sales slip.
Fraudulent checks are often visibly phony, police say. By paying close attention to a check's appearance, you can often detect a possible bad check before accepting it. Look for altered writing or erasures, water spots or alterations of check's color and graphic background. Check to see if the signature matches the imprinted name and ID. Report suspicious behavior to the police immediately, even it means you may be wrong.
Business people should reach out to their local police and ask them to assist in resolving reoccurring disturbances, as well as more serious crimes. The Philadelphia Police, like most police departments, helps small businesses reduce and prevent crime.
The police will work with small businesses to improve their security. Small businesses can join a Business Watch, and by working together, and with the police, they can alert each other to crime patterns and suspicious activities.
"Most people become crime victims because they don't pay attention," Sgt. Ryan said. "You have to pay attention."