Jalina Thompson hardly noticed the two customers who walked into her Metro PCS store in Northeast Baltimore in January with their hoods pulled tight. Temperatures in the city had been frigid for days.
Then one of the men placed a gun on the counter and demanded cash.
“This is real,” he said. “I need you to move fast.”
While the three-year spike in violent crime in Baltimore draws most of the attention, business owners across the city have suffered a similar increase in commercial robberies. Such crime has risen 88 percent in the last five years, from 560 commercial robberies in 2013 to more than 1,000 last year.
Business owners are also complaining of threats outside their stores: drug dealing, intimidation, stabbings and shootings. They’re fighting back with security measures — guards, surveillance cameras, door buzzer systems — moving out of the city or, in some cases, shutting down altogether.
“Our members are very concerned,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. “Unfortunately, a lot of our members don’t relocate. It’s a massive endeavor. A lot of times they just go out of business.”
Police have taken notice — and say recent arrests should make a dent. Five men have been charged recently in at least six robberies across the city. They included a 26-year-old man wanted in four robberies since July, two of them at Metro PCS stores.
“It’s a small group of people responsible for these,” police spokesman T.J. Smith said.
Smith said police are increasing checks on stores and are monitoring CitiWatch cameras more closely. He described an apparent robbery attempt thwarted by CitiWatch personnel in January.
Two men appeared to be casing a 7-Eleven store downtown. It had been robbed days earlier, and three times last year, police said.
The CitiWatch personnel directed officers to the store. They confronted the suspects at the front door. At least one officer and one suspect fired at each other, police said, but no one was injured. The suspects escaped.
City Councilman Brandon Scott chairs the council’s public safety committee. He represents Northeast Baltimore, home to the retail thoroughfares of Harford and Belair roads. Commercial robberies rose 93 percent in the Northeast over five years, to 164 last year.
He says the concentration of businesses and their location have made the region a target for robberies.
“They were happening along our corridors, also because of the proximity to [Baltimore] County,” he said.
Scott said recent figures offer hope. As homicides have fallen in the first weeks of 2018, so have commercial robberies.
The number of such robberies fell 36 percent through early February as compared to the same period last year. In the Northern District, they fell 77 percent, to just six robberies.
Scott said police commanders have emphasized business checks and increased patrols of problem areas.
Thompson, the Metro PCS store owner, said the January robbery at her store on Belair Road was over in a matter of minutes. She said the man with the gun apologized, and told her it was nothing personal.
“He had a look like he didn’t want to do anything,” she said. “It could have been different if I had been contradicting.”
The two men left the store on foot. Thompson called police, and crime scene lab technicians went to the store and dusted for fingerprints. A detective took a copy of the surveillance video, but the suspects’ faces were obscured by their hoods. No arrests have been made.
Vivian Igwe was working behind the counter at a 7-Eleven on Belair Road in November when a man threw coffee in her face and tried to grab money from the register.
“It was scary,” she said. But “he wasn’t fast enough,” and didn’t get any cash.
Police and medics arrived. She said her injuries weren’t serious enough to go to the hospital, but she took the rest of the week off. Her boss visited to check on her, and paid her for the rest of the week.
Igwe said she was concerned about returning to work, but said she needed the job.
“I just had to get around it,” she said.
Police showed her photos of possible suspects, but she said she couldn’t positively identify the man.
A Family Dollar Store on nearby Northern Parkway was robbed twice in the last two months of 2017, an assistant manager said. He said he was working in December when an armed man wearing a ski mask walked into the store as it opened and demanded cash and cigarettes.
The assistant manager did not want to be identified because no arrests have been made. He believes the store is a target because it’s set back from the road and away from other shops.
“It’s kind of isolated — quick hit and go,” he said.
He said Family Dollar is considering deploying a security guard. But the Family Dollar locations that have guards tend to be larger and higher-volume stores, which helps offset the cost.
In the meantime, the store has added a sign at the entrance asking customers to remove face masks and hoods before entering.
“I’m just more mindful of my surroundings and who is in the store,” the assistant manager said.
Similarly, Thompson has added a sign to her Metro PCS store, handwritten on a piece of notebook paper: “Please remove all hats, hoods, masks. Wait to be buzzed in — Thanks!”
The buzzer system allows her to keep the front door locked. When customers press a button, she can open the door from behind the register.
“We are just trying to stay vigilant,” she said.
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