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DeLaney calls for action to boost safety at convenience stores

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An Indiana lawmaker wants to find out whether convenience store operators and state regulators will do enough on their own to increase the safety of store employees before deciding whether he’ll propose legislation forcing the issue.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat, said at a Wednesday morning press conference that he has asked the Indiana Department of Labor to convene a forum with police, convenience store operators, Department of Labor officials and other interested parties.

He hopes the forum will occur within weeks. The outcome, he said, may determine whether he decides to propose a bill and what it could contain.

“The problem is very substantial,” DeLaney said, noting that some convenience stores are robbed as much as once a month.

He held the press conference in the parking lot of the Village Pantry at 1415 W. 86th St., where clerk Marcella Birnell was shot in the head during a late night shift on Oct. 21. She’s now going through therapy at an out-of-state rehabilitation hospital.

Flanking DeLaney at the press conference were Perry Tole, Birnell’s brother in law, and the widower and son of Becky Hough, who was fatally shot while working at the 1402 S. Meridian St. Village Pantry in November 2009.

An Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation in the wake of Hough’s death found employees at the South Meridian Street store had been involved in more than 32 robberies involving force since 2000.

This summer, VP’s parent company, North Carolina-based VPS Convenience Store Group, agreed to pay a $7,000 fine to settle allegations the South Meridian Street store failed to establish and maintain “reasonably safe” working conditions.

As part of the settlement, all 134 Indiana Village Pantry stories in Indiana will be under state scrutiny through June 2014. During that time, VPS will have to submit quarterly reports detailing corrective actions to improve safety and security. VPS’ plan includes a host of measures, including installation of advanced digital surveillance equipment and safety-barrier doors at high-risk locations.

State labor Commissioner Lori Torres offered to convene a "working group" on convenience store safety when she met with DeLaney Nov. 29, Department of Labor spokesman Robert Dittmer said late Wednesday morning. He said the first meeting is expected to be in mid-January.

A VPS spokesman said company officials have not yet been invited to participate. But she added the chain "supports a continuous dialogue about employee and customer safety and regulatory efforts aimed at enhancing best practices in the industry.”

Joe Lackey, president of the Indiana Grocery & Convenience Store Association, said: “We will be happy to discuss anything that could possibly lead to furthering the safety of our employees and customers. At the same time, I am not overly optimistic any great revelations are going to come from it.”

He added: “You can certainly tighten things down to the point you do no business at all. Then you close the store. So it becomes a balance, to a degree.”

DeLaney said one step more stores could take would be installing bullet-resistant plastic between customers and clerks. He said higher staffing levels also would be a deterrent. Birnell and Hough were working alone when they were shot.

“I think it is hard to justify having only one person in a store,” he said. “No security device is as effective as a second set of eyes.”

But DeLaney added he was keeping an open mind. “I’m not rigid yet.”
 

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