Late Shifts at Convenience Stores Pose Potentially Fatal Security Risks

As clocks pass midnight, violent crimes terrorize some convenience retailers

Clerks at three stores said drug addicts are behind many robberies in the Alvernon and Speedway area.

"Big time -- the crack and the meth," said David Czarnowski, a 35-year-old clerk at the Circle K on the southwest corner of North Alvernon Way and East Grant Road.

In contrast to the Quik Mart that was robbed the most last year, his store now has two clerks on duty instead of one at night and is brightly lighted outside.

Inside, the aisles are wide and uncluttered, making it easy to see everyone from inside or outside the store. And because it sells gas and is on a major street, a lot of customers come and go late at night.

Even those measures, however, didn't stop a man from recently shoving Czarnowski behind the counter and taking liquor off the shelf.

The clerk said he knew better than to resist or pursue the man.

"Sometimes I kind of want to. It's an ego thing," he said.

Quik Mart has a policy that prohibits clerks from intervening in robberies or leaving the store during such incidents -- a policy that Cottle had violated over the last year when he went after an armed robber with a bat, said George Feulner, an attorney representing Quik Mart. Cottle was shot in the foot during that incident and was reprimanded for his actions.

Quik Mart declined to comment on the kind of security measures it has in place at its 28 stores in the Tucson area.

Troy Little, then vice president of the family-owned Quik Mart chain, told the Arizona Daily Star in 1999 that employees are safe in general and cited security measures that included installation of closed-circuit TV systems, upgraded lighting around doorways and gas pumps and plans to improve lighting around the perimeter of the stores.

Circle K Corp. was not available for comment and calls to 7-Eleven's corporate headquarters were not returned.

Quik Mart still is negotiating with the state safety division on a settlement agreement in another case, Norton said.

In that case, employee Richard Hardman complained that his employer didn't do enough to keep him safe after a robber beat him with a hammer while he worked the night shift alone at 4477 E. Fifth St. Hardman's family previously told the Star they believe the attack ultimately led to his death in January.

Hardman told inspectors he had been robbed 15 times in his eight years with the company.

When safety inspectors visited stores, they found the company was violating its own policies meant to prevent violence, including the amount of cash on hand and visibility problems including mirror placement and signs blocking windows, according to an inspector's report.

"Quik Mart was aware that the measures it implemented were insufficient to protect employees from workplace violence," the inspector wrote. "Quik Mart's refusal to do more to improve employee safety is difficult to comprehend."

The Industrial Commission of Arizona cited the company for failing to protect employees who were exposed to workplace violence and issued a $70,000 fine in November, but Quik Mart contested the citation and fine.

Lawyers for both sides agreed that the company would pay $35,000 -- $10,000 to the state, $10,000 toward improving workplace safety for Quik Mart employees and $15,000 to the Hardman estate. The settlement has not been finalized, Norton said.

The case is just one of two in which Quik Mart locations in Arizona have been inspected by the state safety division in the past 10 years, records show. Besides the Hardman case, in 1998 state safety inspectors were referred to a store at 1898 S. Mission Road.

Safety inspectors typically inspect convenience stores only when a serious accident or fatality has occurred, Norton said. Many other complaints are handled by phone, he said.

Workplace homicides are rare in Tucson. Nationwide, workplace homicides are on the decline, falling 42 percent from 1994 to 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Workplace violence, including assaults and suicides, accounted for 16 percent of all work-related fatal injuries in 2003, the agency said.