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COVER STORY : With Violent Crime Striking Even on the Job, Workers Are Seeking. . . : A Margin of Safety

March 30, 1995|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A liquor store clerk in Long Beach is killed for $68 in his cash register. A restaurant manager in Downey is stabbed to death for the day's receipts. A cabby in Montebello is pummeled by two passengers demanding $25. And a mail carrier in Compton is robbed at gunpoint by robbers seeking welfare checks.

Workers in Southeast Los Angeles County are increasingly the victims of assaults and homicides, authorities say, and the growing peril of on-the-job violence mirrors a statewide trend. Violent acts have become the leading cause of death in the workplace, surpassing transportation accidents, according to state statistics.

State public health experts say most of the violent workplace crime occurs during robberies at convenience stores, gasoline stations, fast-food outlets and other businesses in which employees handle cash and work alone or late at night. Delivery workers whose jobs take them into crime-ridden neighborhoods face similar dangers.

Employers are scrambling to make these jobs safer. Some now close at night or prohibit employees from working alone after dark. Others have equipped clerks with flak jackets or panic buttons that ring company headquarters. In Compton, police now stake out mail routes at the beginning of each month when carriers are delivering government checks.

But authorities and workers alike agree that there is no foolproof way to guard against crimes that occur randomly and without warning. As a result, workers are often left to protect themselves as best they can.

Most rely on a combination of weapons and instincts.

* A motel manager in North Long Beach who lives on site locks herself inside her quarters after 10 at night to avoid being robbed or shot by drug users hanging out in the dark parking lot outside her office.

* A mail carrier in Compton varies her mail route when she senses trouble--changing the order of the streets she walks--to avoid being an easy target for would-be robbers.

* Gary Thornton, a former clerk at P & B Liquor Jr. Market, kept a police scanner behind the counter to monitor activity in the surrounding Bixby Park neighborhood, an area known for prostitution and drug dealing. The crackle of police chatter, Thornton says, scared off would-be robbers--until the scanner itself was stolen in January.

*

Thornton also kept a loaded gun and a baseball bat on hand. Still, Thornton, a formidable presence at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, says he was robbed and struck in the face with a beer bottle in separate incidents during his 18 months at the store.

His former co-worker, Nasser Akbar, 51, was slain last August during a nighttime robbery at the store. "They put five holes in him for 68 bucks," Thornton said.

A week before that fatal shooting, the owner of a meat market about a mile away was shot to death during a robbery.

Thornton left his job this month to search for a safer job, possibly as a truck driver or a cashier at a department store. "People thought I was nuts to work there (the liquor store)," he said.

Some workers say that fear is part of the job. To deal with that, they may seek counseling or request transfers to safer locations. Those who remain learn to live with frayed nerves.

"I'm out there and I'm shaking, delivering the mail fast," said Compton mail carrier Jose Martinez. Last September, robbers stomped and choked Martinez and took his mailbag, which contained about 150 government checks. "I still can't get over it," he said.

Martinez, who suffered cuts and bruises, took a month off after the incident. The day he returned, thieves broke the lock on the back of his truck and stole trays of mail while he was making deliveries.

But Martinez, who has worked his route for the last 18 months, said he intends to stay. "These people really need us out there," he said. "It's like your family."

Compton logged more mail-carrier robberies and mail truck break-ins last year--26 incidents--than any other city in the Southeast area. As a result of the incidents, the city's police department now dispatches 15 plainclothes narcotics and gang investigators to patrol mail routes and accompany carriers when government checks are delivered on the first and third of each month. Police and postal officials also have taped a show for cable television appealing to residents to keep an eye on mail carriers.

"I don't think anyone should have to risk their lives to provide a public service," said Compton Police Chief Hourie Taylor, who appears in the cable TV program. "Hopefully, we can prevent some of this."

Private businesses are taking more precautions. Many now close before dark or lock their doors at night, requiring customers to pay for goods through metal drawers built into front windows. Others have hired security guards or installed surveillance cameras.

San Gabriel Transit Inc., one of the Southeast area's primary taxi companies, is installing computer consoles with panic buttons inside vehicles that alert dispatchers of trouble and immediately pinpoint a cab's location.

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