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Will restricting convenience stores make Richmond safer? Policing expert says no.

Posted at 6:30 PM, Dec 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-14 10:36:38-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Richmond City Council is hoping to reduce crime by looking to apply stricter regulations on convenience stores by changing zoning laws. The move is drawing mixed reactions from Richmond business owners and a law enforcement expert.

Yazen Alameirin has operated the Y and I Market on the city's Northside for four years. During that time, Alameirin said he has avoided troubles at his business by running a tight ship.

“The people come to the store, we serve them up whatever they need, we provide the best we can do for them, they leave. That's it," Alameirin said. “Nobody’s allowed to gather out in my parking lot or stay hanging out.”

He said he's aware that convenience stores can be a hot spot for crime.

In fact, data reported from Richmond Police to the FBI showed convenience stores were the fourth most common location for violent crime in Richmond last year with 122 reported incidents. The top three locations for violent crime were streets/sidewalks, homes, and parking lots.

So why are convenience stores prone to crime? According to William Pelfrey, a professor of homeland security and criminal justice at VCU, there are lots of reasons.

"They're designed to be easy in and easy out," Pelfrey said. "Convenience stores are open all night. Crime happens at night, not during the daylight, so you want to be running away at night when people can't see you. Convenience stores hold cash, so they're great places if you're looking to commit a crime."

Additionally, he said the stores are places where people congregate, can buy and drink single beers, and are typically located in areas deemed as food deserts.

“Food deserts are low socioeconomic status neighborhoods with few retail establishments. Convenience stores are the grocery stores for those neighborhoods, so they're the places where people go," Pelfrey said.

With those public safety concerns in mind, Monday night, Richmond City Council unanimously voted to approve a study into changing zoning laws for convenience stores, essentially creating a stricter process for some stores to open up.

The effort, led by Councilmembers Ellen Robertson and Ann-Frances Lambert, would examine excluding convenience stores from the same permitted use as a grocery store in all districts where that use is permitted.

Instead, new zoning specifically for neighborhood convenience stores would be applied to certain areas. Outside of that, convenience stores would have to seek special permission from the city to conduct business.

Through the study, Councilor Robertson said officials will host public hearings, meet with store owners, collect data, and redefine what a convenience store is and the services it should be providing to the community.

Councilor Lambert added the effort will not impact existing convenience stores, but rather "how we look at convenience stores" in the future. She also raised concerns about an abundance of stores that are in close proximity in her 3rd district.

“There’s four of them within two blocks of each other, and there’s another one about to come and being built, and they’re about to install bulletproof glass," Lambert said. "Who is asking for this?”

Meanwhile, Councilmember Mike Jones, who voted in support of the resolution, questioned whether focusing on convenience stores is the best approach to reducing crime.

“I don’t believe a convenience store is the root of crime in African American neighborhoods," Jones said. "As we look at some of the root causes of what goes on in some of our neighborhoods, it may just happen in front of or nearby.”

Pelfrey said a decrease in the number of convenience stores across the city likely won't lead to less crime in the future.

“I don’t see how that makes any sense," Pelfrey said. "There are going to be the same number of perpetrators. If you reduce the number of convenience stores from 280 to 250, that's a reduction, but there's still going to be people who will walk an extra block, who will run another couple of blocks to knock off a convenience store because they know it's a prime victim. Unless you reduce the number of convenience stores by a tremendous margin, it's not going to make much difference."

He suggested the council could take more impactful legislative action by requiring stores to change their environmental design to include "double entry doors, really good lighting inside and out, security cameras inside and out, and direct access to the police like a buzzer system that you find at banks that hits an alarm at one button."

Over at Y and I Market, Alameirin said he'll continue to take safety precautions to keep his store safe.

For instance, he closes the market at 11 p.m. daily, does not allow skilled games inside, and keeps the appearance of the store clean. He said store owners have a duty to protect their customers and their neighborhoods.

“The owner of the business is responsible about what happens in and out his own property," he said. "You've got to know how to deal with the public, which is the hardest part with this business."

He doesn't believe restricting convenience stores is the answer, saying they're necessary for their communities.

"The convenience store is a good business, not bad for you," Alameririn said.

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