Recent rash of robberies a wake-up call for
Darbie Hall’s two drive-through coffee stands have been robbed a total of five times.
Most recently, a man who claimed he had a weapon hit her Brewed Awakening stand on Samish Way early in the morning on Jan. 21.
“It’s stupid, because they hardly get any money,” said Hall, who makes sure only $20 is available in her till at all times to prevent robbers from thinking of her store as a target – and from losing a lot of dough.
A recent slew of business robberies have left Bellingham storeowners wondering about the proper protocol for protecting their establishments.
According to police records, there were nine robberies in Bellingham in January — more than in any single month last year.
Officer Mark Young said most robberies are unplanned and motivated by a robber’s need for drug money. They typically occur at banks, drive-through coffee stands and convenience and liquor stores, although bank robberies have lessened in the last few years, he said.
However, any business that handles cash is vulnerable, and there are many things business owners can do before a robbery to prevent one and during a robbery to ensure the safety of employees, he said.
Visibility is key to preventing robberies from happening in the first place. Young said having windows around your storefront allows employees to keep an eye out for suspicious people, and also allows people to look inside.
“The common reality is that robbers don’t like to be seen,” Young said.
Checkout stands and cash registers should be located in a central and visible area, with no display racks blocking them, Young said. You should also make sure you have adequate lighting inside and outside, he said.
Consider how you control your store’s cash, as well. Young suggests keeping the lowest amount possible of cash on hand and letting customers know that with signage.
Most stores adopt a cash policy limit of $50, he said. Anything in excess of that should be dropped into a safe that only the manager and/or owner have access to — another policy that should be advertised with signage.
Performing background checks on employees who handle cash can also deter potential robbers, especially because it’s common for ex-employees or ex-employees’ family members to commit store robberies, Young said.
Another good idea is to train staff to keep a lookout for suspicious people and to call 911 if they suspect someone, Young said. Look for people who are loitering, glancing around or don’t appear to be doing anything, he said. This will get police on their way to the store in case the person does attempt a robbery.
During opening and closing times, which are especially vulnerable to robberies, it’s important to always have at least two people working to prevent a robbery, Young said. Before workers leave, have them check any offices, back rooms and restrooms for hiding robbers or burglars. And make sure any back or side doors are locked, especially during the summer when they are typically left open, Young said.
Hall would like to be able to staff two workers at opening and closing shifts but said it’s hard to do so during slow business months.
That’s why Jessica Henderson, who manages Brewed Awakening and was robbed there three years ago, said she routinely checks the perimeter of the stand before her 4:30 a.m. shift. She checks for suspicious people hiding behind bushes or trashcans.
Some robbers will even lock employees in a storage room so they can have an easy getaway. Young suggests keeping a survival kit in such rooms, as well as an alarm and phone.
Finally, place multi-colored tape marking three different heights — 5 feet; 5 feet, 6 inches; and 6 feet — along the main entranceway so that employees can gauge the height of the robber for identification in case of an incident, Young said.
What to do during and after a robbery
Robbers are desperate, usually for their next drug fix, and oftentimes they are a bundle of nerves, Young said. A typical robbery takes usually 2 to 3 minutes.
“Your goal is to go home safe and unharmed,” he said.
First of all, be polite. Treat the robber as a customer, he said. It may sound counterintuitive, but you don’t want them to become more nervous.
“Keep things calm and don’t make any sudden moves that can be interpreted as resistance or alarm,” he said.
Don’t convey that you are stalling for any reason and tell the robber in advance if you need to make any substantial movements to comply with their requests.
It’s a good idea to wait until a robber leaves before attempting to set off any silent or panic alarms, unless you are sure you can do it without their noticing, Young said. Call 911 immediately.
During the robbery and right after, try to identify as much as possible about the robber’s physical appearance, including gender, height, eye and hair color, facial features, approximate age and weight, scars, marks, tattoos, speech peculiarities, mannerisms and injuries. Write those down while you are waiting for police to arrive, he said.
Never chase after a robber, Young said, but try to see which way they go — by foot or vehicle — and whether they have an accomplice.
Sometimes the robber will give an employee a note demanding money, and sometimes in their nervousness and haste, they will leave it behind. If this happens, put a sack or a box over it to preserve the evidence. Ask witnesses to remain outside the store, Young said.
The main thing to remember during a robbery is to stay calm and keep yourself safe, he said. Harm or injury during a robbery is usually the result of someone trying to fight with an intruder or disregard any of the above advice, he said.
“Usually it’s the exception, not the case, for someone to get harmed during a robbery,” he said.
Hall said that despite the fact her Samish Way drive-through has been robbed three times, she doesn’t think it keeps her from retaining staff.
“The girls are afraid, I don’t blame them,” she said. “But I tell them it would be very rare for (a robber) to hurt you over $50.”
Henderson agreed, and added that when robberies happen, they remind her to be more vigilant about safety.
“I don’t feel paranoid here. You have that risk no matter where you work,” she said. “But when it happens, it reminds me to be more aware.”
Recent business robberies
Feb. 14 — Kmart in Sunset Square
- Suspect threatened a manager with a knife, stole and loaded a shotgun and threatened to shoot himself.
- Suspect identified as Leon Robson. Was taken into custody by police and booked into jail.
Feb. 11 — Walgreen’s on Sunset Drive
- Suspect described as a thin white male, between 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet tall.
- Suspect was armed with a knife and stole an undisclosed amount of oxycontin.
Feb. 11 — Banner Bank on Barkley Boulevard
- Suspect described as a white male.
- Suspect gave teller a note indicating he was robbing the bank. Teller told him her till was empty. He told her to get cash and then left without cash. About 45 minutes later, the same suspect robbed a Ferndale Wells Fargo branch.
Feb. 10 — Travelodge on N. Samish Way
- Suspect described as a white male in his 40s, approximately 6 feet tall with medium build. Matches description of robberies at Lafeens and I Wanna Moka (see below).
- Suspect demanded cash from clerk while holding a silver handgun.
Feb. 6 — Cruisin’ Coffee near the corner of Bakerview Road and
- Suspect described as a white male, with a tan complexion, about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and about 240 pounds.
- Suspect ordered the employee to give him money after implying he had a weapon.
Feb. 5 — I Wanna Moka, on Old Fairhaven Parkway
- Suspect described as a white male, in his 40s, wearing a baseball cap and having light brown hair.
- Suspect ordered a cup of coffee and then demanded money after displaying a silver handgun.
Feb. 4 — Yorky’s Market on Alabama Street
- Suspect described, similar to above, as a white male, about 40 years old, 6 feett tall with a medium build, with bleached-blonde, medium-length hair under a baseball cap.
- Suspect showed the clerk a semi-automatic handgun and demanded all the money in the cash register.
Feb. 2 — Lafeens Family Pride Donuts and Ice Cream on Electric Avenue
- Suspect described as white man, in his late 30s or early 40s, with a thin to medium build, about 6 feet tall and smelling of cigarette smoke.
- Suspect demanded money from the register with a handgun.
Jan. 25 — Horizon Bank on Alabama Street
- Suspect described as a white male.
- Suspect presented a demand note to a teller stating he had a gun and was robbing the bank.
- Suspect was apprehended later that day.
Jan. 21 — Game Stop on Sunset Drive
- Suspect described as a white male, tall and skinny, approximately 20 years old and smelling of cigarettes.
- Suspect browsed games for about 45 minutes, bought them, then began to leave the store. He then returned to the cash register and displayed a small knife, demanding cash and video games.
Jan. 20 — Brewed Awakening on Consolidation Street
(just off Samish Way)
- Suspect stated he had a gun and wanted all of the cash from the business, but did not display a gun.
- Suspect was apprehended, admitted his involvement in the robbery and was booked into Whatcom County Jail.
What to do during a robbery
- Be polite and stay calm.
- Wait until after robber leaves to set off panic alarm or call 911, unless you’re sure he or she won’t see you doing it.
- Note robber’s physical appearance, and write them down after he/she leaves.
- Note which way robber leaves.
- Protect any demand notes left behind.
- Ask witnesses to wait outside for police.