Captive at the Counter—Part 2: When Robbers Need a Quick Fix

FEBRUARY 01, 2007
Cmdr John Burke

Last month, we talked about the prospect of becoming a hostage inside your own pharmacy, a scenario that, when it occurs, is usually related to an armed robbery. Although it is difficult to obtain national pharmacy robbery statistics, reviewing the robbery offenses that are reported through RxPatrol ( every day makes me think they have increased significantly over the past few years.

The unfortunate reality is that, if someone wants to hold up a pharmacy, he or she is going to do so, and it is usually due to an addiction problem. Therefore, your best effort is to try to prevent it from happening at your store; and if it does happen, do everything you can to assist the police in arresting the perpetrator.

One of the first steps is to contact your local police department and ask for a security review of your store. Larger departments will have a crime prevention officer or someone who functions in that capacity and should be able to give you some advice on reducing your chance of being a target. This has other benefits as you increase your communication with the local police. Let them know that you are doing your best to prevent a robbery and want to cooperate to the fullest if a crime is committed in your pharmacy.

Of course, having an armed guard in the pharmacy would be ideal, but that is not reality in most pharmacies. Having bright light in the parking lot, however, can deter would-be robbers, as would having an unobstructed view of the actual pharmacy area from the outside to allow patrolling police cars to visually check on you as they cruise through your parking lot. Simply removing an advertisement or 2 from the window can assist in preventing nighttime burglaries.

Do not hide from the public that you have surveillance cameras inside your store. Have one prominently displayed in back of the pharmacy counter, facing toward the customer. This will deter not only robberies but other pharmacy crimes related to false prescriptions, "doctor shopping," and other scams. Of course, the key to these cameras is that you keep the video current. Too many times we investigate pharmacy crimes that have sufficient camera coverage, only to find that they were not activated at the time, or the tapes had not been changed.

Oftentimes after pharmacy robberies, employees will tell police about a suspicious person they saw in the store earlier, or even the night before. Although it is often difficult to call the police every time a strange or suspicious person is in the pharmacy, you may try to discreetly obtain a license number of the individual after he leaves. In virtually all cases, the perpetrator will have been inside your pharmacy at least once and, in some cases, many times, before getting the "courage" to commit the crime.

Many stores today have installed height tape on the inside of the pharmacy so that you can better estimate the height of the offender, if your prevention efforts have failed. Trying to notice the suspect's physical features and clothing is not an easy task with a gun in your face, but it is likely very important in apprehending the suspect later. Look for obvious features (scars, glasses, limp, accent, hairstyle, etc) of the suspect during the holdup.

Of course, call the police as soon as possible, giving basic information on the description of the offender to the dispatcher, which direction he or she took when leaving the store, and a description of the vehicle, if you have one. This provides responding police officers with some description in case they encounter the subject on the way to your store. Many times officers pass these criminals on their way to the location, but with no initial description the suspect gets away.

Last but not least, you may want to remind the officer taking the report that most pharmacy robberies are committed by addicts needing a quick fix. Once they leave your store, they likely return to their residence, which is 5 miles or less away, and overdose. If they are lucky, someone calls for medical assistance, and they are transported to the local hospital. Checking life squad runs or hospital emergency rooms a few hours after the robbery can reap benefits.

Preventing pharmacy robberies is the number-1 goal. If that fails, however, it is crucial to get as good a description as possible with adequate functioning cameras. Immediate notification of the police also is important. Remember that no prescription drugs or money are worth your health; cooperate with the offender; and keep yourself and your customers as safe as possible.

John Burke, commander of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, is a 38-year veteran of law enforcement. Cmdr Burke also is the current president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. For information, he can be reached by e-mail at, via the Web site, or by phone at 513-336-0070.

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