A Madison City Council committee is reviewing a proposal to mandate security cameras at all the city’s convenience stores, but business groups say such a “one-size-fits-all” approach is counterproductive and ineffective against crime.
The proposal advanced by Mayor Paul Soglin and now before the Public Safety Review Committee also outlines where cameras need to be aimed, the picture quality and penalties for violations, which run from $200 to $750, depending on the number of violations an establishment has.
Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, said it’s ridiculous to impose a blanket mandate because the stores have different security needs, based on their square footage, location, how the store is designed and the amount of customer traffic.
“This is a reaction by the mayor because there have been incidents in convenience store parking lots,” Scholz told Watchdog.org. “I think the better option here is for the police department to work with individual store owners, especially in areas where they think we have problems.”
The proposal wouldn’t have much impact on grocery stores and supermarkets in the city because most of them are already equipped with high-tech security systems, he said. And the text of the proposal seems to focus on stores that include gas pumps.
“ ‘Convenience Store’ shall mean an establishment where motor fuel products or other minor accessories are retailed directly to the public on the premises, in combination with the sale of items typically found in a convenience market or supermarket,” the proposal states.
Cameras would be required to cover the counter and register area, entrances and exits, and areas surrounding all gas pumps, the proposed ordinance says.
“We’ve opposed it even though almost everybody (in the grocery store business) has got a camera,” Scholz said, adding that the city government may not comprehend all the details about store security.
He also raised the question of what the city’s ultimate goal is – deterring crime vs. getting private companies to pay for what could be an extension of police evidence gathering by having 24-hour video coverage at the department’s disposal.
A city fiscal analysis of the ordinance, however, says the Madison Police Department may face some additional expenses to catalog the resulting videos as evidence to help identify suspects of crimes.
“However, efficiencies gained in getting the evidence should offset any additional processing costs,” the fiscal analysis says. “No appropriation is required.”
“If the city does this and pretty soon we see other municipalities mandate this equipment, then I think you will see a statewide opposition,” Scholz said.
Jeff Lenard, vice president for strategic industry initiatives for the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, also expressed doubts about the city’s proposal. Security experts generally suggest two strategies for convenience store security, according to Lenard. The No. 1 recommendation is secure money management, meaning that employees make timely money drops into safes that are inaccessible to workers and robbers alike.
Another important strategy involves an emphasis on visibility and improved lighting – including minimizing signage in windows –to reduce risks of crime, Lenard said.
“When your store is like a submarine, and you can’t see in or out, that is a welcome sign for criminals,” he told Watchdog.org.
Like Scholz, Lenard sees the measure as a “one-size-fits-all” approach that is likely not the best option to deter crime, though he does see a general agreement between the city and store owners on one point.
“I think that we’re all aligned that security is critical,” he said, adding that whether you’re an employer or customer, you want the store to be safe.
But he pointed to a 2003 study of juvenile criminals by Athena Research Corp. that concluded security cameras are far down the list of tactics that effectively deter adult and juvenile robbers. Cameras came in at No. 12, while strategies such as bullet-resistant barriers, frequent police patrols and good visibility were deemed more effective.
In addition, the cost of installing camera systems would ultimately be borne by customers in the form of a higher cost of goods, according to Lenard. Such establishments are often small businesses that lack the resources of big corporations, he said.
“Well-meaning regulations can backfire,” Lenard said. Panic alarms, as one example, could put an employee in danger if a robber interprets a movement of the hands toward a hidden button as an attempt to reach for a gun, he said.