At What Convenience
5 tips (plus a bonus) for staying safe at gas stations & convenience storesBy Scott Hughes | Mar 9, 2015
One of my favorite websites for stats, www.StatisticBrain.com, lists the number of gas stations in the U.S. at more than 121,000 in 2014. Of these gas stations over 82% are also convenience stores. In some areas they’re on every corner, while in other parts of the country they’re miles apart.
Regardless of how many stores there are in your jurisdiction, we all have a “favorite.” How do we pick our favorite? For some of us the choice is easy: It’s the only one open on third shift. Or better than that: It’s the only one in town. For others it comes down to cleanliness, location, which one has the best Slurpee selection, a favorite clerk, or some other dynamic we just like.
The criminal element use gas stations for their convenience as well. Together, these locations accounted for 7% (slightly over 21,000) of the total number of robberies in the United States in 2013. But robbery isn’t the only crime occurring at gas stations. Drug trafficking, larceny, prostitution and auto thefts are occurring in and around these 24/7 businesses. With so much activity, we must constantly be aware of our surroundings when visiting these locations during our tour of duty.For just one recent example of why, watch the video below.
Following are five tips and reminders to keep you safe the next time you stop in for that cup of coffee.
Observe the vehicles in the lot: If this seems basic—it is! When you pull into a parking lot look at the vehicles and pay attention to how they’re parked. What direction are the vehicles facing? Are they backed in near the front door?
As law enforcement officers we often back our vehicles into parking spots in case we need to quickly depart for an emergency. Understand that criminals use this same strategy while committing crimes for a quick escape. Note: Pay special attention to vehicles parked in this manner that are left running and/or occupied by a driver. This could alert you to the possibility of a getaway driver.
While you are looking at the vehicles also look at the occupants. What are they doing? Are they looking at their lap for an extended amount of time? If so, they could be engaged in narcotics activity. If they’re parked at a gas pump, are they putting fuel in their car? Is the vehicles’ gas cap consistent with where the pump is located?
Loitering: Are people hanging around the front door? If so, are they panhandling? Or are they casing out the establishment? Are they lingering in the shadows? Do they walk away when they notice you?
(Remember Terry v. Ohio? Detective McFadden with the Cleveland Police Department observed two individuals—eventually joined by a third—acting suspiciously near the front of a jewelry store and suspected them of “casing a job.” Ultimately two subjects would be arrested, two weapons recovered, and a landmark decision decided by the United States Supreme Court.)
Where’s the Clerk? Before you exit your patrol car and enter the store, make sure you can see the employee behind the counter. There have been several situations—some of which we feature prominently in the Street Survival Seminar—where officers have walked in on a robbery in progress. Unfortunately, in some of these incidents the crime fighters paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Bottom line: NEVER walk into a gas station or convenience store until you observe an employee!
Position inside the store: While you’re standing inside the store drinking a cup of coffee or catching up with your troops, be aware of your location. Positioning yourself where you can actively observe the parking lot and customers entering and exiting is ideal. Realizing this may not always be possible, consider standing in a location where you have access to an exit, perhaps a side door or rear stockroom door.
Watch the hands: Every police academy covers this topic within the first hours or days: HANDS KILL. Remember this as you are watching customers come and go from the store. Be aware of hands in pockets or otherwise concealed.
Bonus: The majority of us use these establishments for one reason: the restroom! Most of us walk into the restroom, handle our business, and don’t give much thought to walking back out into the common area of the store.
Before you open the door to exit the restroom, listen! As silly as it sounds, no pun intended, you can hear a lot by standing at the door. We do it all the time on domestic type calls, we even teach it in the academy, therefore use the same analogy when leaving a restroom.
As we discuss in our Warrior’s Edge course, body language—for a lack of better term—can indicate deceptive behavior and pre-attack and/or pre-flight indicators. If something doesn’t seem right and you get that “gut feeling,” take some time and observe the situation.
Convenience stores are about the convenience, but taking a few moments to assess the situation is well worth the effort. Stay safe!