Captive at the Counter: When Robbers Take Hostages—Part 1

Pharmacy Times
Volume 0

News came recently fromStollings, WVa, of a man whoheld 6 people hostage afterannouncing a pharmacy holdup, carryinga pistol and a shotgun. He fired severalshots inside the pharmacy during the 90-minute standoff. Two of the pharmacytechnicians escaped after hearing himproclaim that he wanted to kill himselfbut did not want to harm anyone else.

He demanded and received hydrocodoneand alprazolam during the standoff,and, after consuming a quantity ofthe pharmaceuticals, eventually becamedrowsy, almost passing out. This allowedthe remaining hostages to overpowerhim, one of whom used the assailant'sown shotgun to hit him on the headwhile he was being subdued. Fortunately,none of the hostages wereinjured during the siege, and the robberwas seen being removed, heavily bandagedand on a stretcher.

Pharmacy robberies are an extremelydangerous business, as the typical perpetratoris a desperate addict bent on gettinghis or her next fix at your store.Although taking hostages is rare, when itdoes happen, the danger level increasestremendously. Hostages may be takenbecause police have been summonedand are seen by the robber, who feelsthat the only way out is to grab a humanshield.

So what should you do if a robberyturns to a hostage situation, and you arethe intended hostage? This is not as easya question as it might seem at first. In thevast majority of cases, law enforcementwill tell you to cooperate with anyonetrying to rob your store; money anddrugs are nothing compared with thevalue of your life and the lives of yourcoworkers and customers. This is excellentadvice in the usual robbery scenariowhere the suspect getsdrugs and leaves, buthostage ordeals can bemuch different.

If the hostage situationis contained inside yourstore with an armed criminal,and no immediatesafe method of escape isavailable to you, thenstaying calm and cooperatingwith the subject areimperative. Many variablesexist, however, inthese situations, and yourpersonality and the demeanorof the robber willmost likely determine how you will actduring this potentially perilous timeframe.

In the example in West Virginia, I wouldthink that offering some sympathy andcareful questioning about the assailant'slife's problems may be the best route totake. In other situations where the subjectappears to be much more violentand desperate, silence and compliancemay be the best path for you and anyother hostages present. These moodscan change quickly and may require youto think just as fast during the situation.Once again, your personality will dictatehow involved you can become in tryingto calm this person and keep everyonesafe.

The worst-case scenario is that thearmed perpetrator is demanding thatyou leave the building with him. Thisrequires split-second thinking on yourpart as to whether you succumb to hisorder or decide to draw the line andrefuse to leave the confines and relativesafety of the pharmacy. This is obviouslyyour decision, but as a common rule, situationsthat involve hostages beingtaken from a public area oftentimes donot have a positive outcome. Once youfind yourself out of the sight and hearingof others, your fate is totally in the handsof this criminal, with no chance of help.

It is important that you at least thinkabout "what if" and discuss yourthoughts with your coworkers to stimulateconversation, possibly even developinga basic plan, knowing that it will likelyrequire you to remain flexible dependingon the situation at hand.

The best way to avoid hostage situationsin your pharmacy is to prevent therobbery from being committed in the firstplace. Next month, we will take a look atsome commonsense methods to help inpreventing pharmacy robberies.

John Burke, commander ofthe Warren County, Ohio,drug task force and retiredcommander of the CincinnatiPolice PharmaceuticalDiversion Squad, isa 38-year veteran of lawenforcement. Cmdr Burkealso is the current presidentof the National Association of Drug DiversionInvestigators. For information, he can bereached by e-mail at, viathe Web site, or byphone at 513-336-0070.

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