Committee to push for safer late-night stores in Indiana

A panel of state labor officials and retail groups says they'll try to have a plan to better protect late-night employees from violent crimes by May.

The Late Night Retail Working Group met Thursday in a three-hour public forum to discuss how to make gas stations, liquor stores and other late-night retail outlets safer for employees. Since 2006, six people have been killed and 27 people have been seriously injured in violent crimes at late-night stores in Indiana.

The group includes representatives from the state's police force; Department of Labor; Association of Beverage Retailers; Grocery and Convenience Store Association; and Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, as well as safety and operations administrators from convenience-store chains Circle K and Village Pantry. Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, also joined in the conversation.

The group initially formed a five-person advisory committee with state and trade association representatives to create a comprehensive plan for late-night retailers to ensure workers' safety. But family members protested during Thursday's meeting, arguing that the committee wouldn't include their voices. The group then expanded the committee to include Indianapolis resident Theresia Whitfield, a friend of a convenience store shooting victim. The companies will regulate themselves.

State Labor Commissioner Lori Torres said the committee's proposal must be issued in April or May.

This was the first meeting since a contentious closed-door session last month, of which family members of victims of violent crimes say they were shut out. Torres said that meeting was a chance for her department to get organized before giving a detailed public presentation.

"We got a lot of pushback from the media and legislature and the families on that," Torres said. "In that session, what we did talk about was that we needed to get something done, and we talked to the different groups to see what they already had in place."

Late last year, Perry Tole and Tim Rico, two relatives of convenience-store employees who'd been victims of violent crimes, initiated the effort to make stores safer. Rico's mother was killed while working as a cashier at an Indianapolis Village Pantry store. Tole is the brother-in-law of Marcella Burnell, who was shot in the face while working the third shift at a different Village Pantry. Rico reached out to Tole when he heard about Tole's sister-in-law.

Since then, the two have been joined by other family members of employees in pushing for major convenience store companies to adopt stricter safety requirements. They want fewer employees working night shifts by themselves, more bulletproof plastic glass enclosures around cash registers and discreetly installed panic buttons in every store to send instant alerts to police.

Whitfield said the suggestions for self-regulation are a good start, but unless the companies are willing to spend the money on costlier measures such as bulletproof glass and hiring extra workers, it's not enough.

"Employees are not an expendable commodity," Whitfield said.

Torres, who led Thursday's forum, said she's cautiously optimistic that the companies will be able to compromise and enact the best worker-safety plan.

"The industry just has to be ready and embrace it," she said.

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