Pharmacy robberies force new focus on prevention

March 1, 2009

Pharmacies are being robbed across the country in increasing numbers. Many of these robberies involve controlled substances. New prevention approaches are needed.

Key Points

In January, a young man walked into the Kinney Drug Store in Bradford, Vt., and demanded OxyContin. And in a step beyond the typical robbery, a man walked into a Rite Aid pharmacy in Portsmouth, Va., with a device around his neck. He demanded OxyContin and said that if he did not get it, he would set off a bomb within five minutes.

Across the nation, in Kroger, Winn-Dixie, CVS, Walgreens, and other chain and independent stores, pharmacies are being robbed. These robberies are forcing the industry to renew its prevention efforts. "It seems to be something on the rise nationwide. I see two or three cases a day across the nation," said Jeff Beasley, intelligence inspector with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which tracks drug-related crimes nationwide.

In Florida, pharmacists are concerned about an increase in robberies involving drugs such as oxycodone. "We're hearing more and more from pharmacies that this is happening to them," said Michael Jackson, executive vice president and CEO of the Florida Pharmacy Association in Tallahassee. As a result, FHA recently reminded members about RxPatrol, a national database on retail crimes that is available only to pharmacists and law enforcement personnel who register with the site. The letter provided other resources and referred members to a checklist posted at http://RxPatrol.com/ that can help shield pharmacies from being targets of crime.

While some experts speculate that robbery is on the rise because of the economy, Jackson said it may be increasing "partly because law enforcement has been successful in getting illegal drugs off the street." In addition, the drugs involved in the robberies are popular with addicts. "It appears that hydrocodone, oxycodone, and OxyContin are being taken. It is the area of drugs in which we see a lot of diversion," Beasley said.

The National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) started noticing an increase in pharmacy robberies about a year ago. As a result, it started a program to help its members prevent and deter robberies. NCPA's "Protect Our Pharmacy Now" initiative provides a security checklist for companies, discounts on security equipment such as video cameras, and information about RxPatrol and http://RxPatrol.com/.

RxPatrol is invaluable because "you can see which crimes were reported in your area. We encourage people to look at that, because a lot of times these things happen in waves," said Valerie Briggs, senior director of communications and marketing outreach for NCPA. NCPA encourages members to notify law enforcement about any suspicious activity in their stores and to install video cameras that track every person coming into the store. "It is a huge deterrent for them to have a camera in their store," Briggs said, noting that placing signs at a certain height in the pharmacy area can help identify the height of a robber. When a robber - armed or unarmed - demands certain drugs, law-enforcement agencies, NCPA, and others encourage pharmacy staff to cooperate. "Do whatever you have to do to cooperate. Yes, the drugs are valuable; but of course, lives are more valuable," Briggs said.

Instead, officials suggest paying close attention to the robber's physical characteristics, including birthmarks, tattoos, and other markings that can help identify the perpetrator. "Observation is essential. Without staring at the robber, recognize significant identifying marks that might be helpful," Jackson said. One safety measure that prevents a robber from jumping over the counter is a glass or plexiglass partition separating the pharmacist from the customer. Some chains have these in all their stores, but many do not. While partitions may protect the pharmacy staff, they make it more difficult for customers to feel comfortable talking to pharmacists, Briggs said.

NCPA is also seeking congressional designation for "Protect Your Pharmacy Week," its annual awareness campaign, which will take place April 13 through April 17.

"We believe such support will help raise public awareness of the issue," Briggs said.

Christine Blank is a writer in Orlando, Fla.