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Pharmacy Burglaries: Prevention, Security and Safety

Pharmacy Burglaries: Prevention, Security and Safety by Elements magazine |

March 19, 2014

Pharmacy burglars aren’t looking for money. They usually want narcotics, and they are willing to go to extreme measures to get them. Burglars will cut a hole in a pharmacy’s roof and drop into the store. They’ll try to bust through glass front doors with baseball bats and break in through drive-thru windows. Armed robbers will even hold up a store full of people. And it can happen to any pharmacy. Anywhere.

Prescription drugs are the second most abused category of drugs in the U.S., according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have even gone so far as to classify prescription drug abuse as an epidemic. And whether it’s due to a drug addiction or for the high street value of narcotics, burglars continue to target pharmacies for the controlled substances they stock.

More than 2,990 pharmacy robberies and more than 1,840 pharmacy break-ins have been reported in the U.S. since RxPatrol, a national database that tracks, analyzes and provides information on pharmacy crime, started keeping track in 2001. But according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), there were 714 pharmacy robberies reported in 2013 alone. Due to the limited data from voluntary reports, the actual numbers of pharmacy burglaries and robberies are likely much higher.

It’s clear that as prescription drug abuse and drug diversion continue to trouble the nation, pharmacy owners must take action to secure and protect their businesses.

It’s 4:30 a.m. two days before Christmas. In the quiet of the sleepy Monday morning in December 2013, a stolen dually truck reverses at full speed from the far end of Curtin Drug’s parking lot right into the front of the building.

The collision buckles the pharmacy’s steel security gate and demolishes its front bay windows. The thief jumps out of the truck, grabs four bottles of Percocet® and runs around the corner to a waiting getaway car. The whole incident took just minutes and was caught on the pharmacy’s security cameras.

“The entire truck was in my store,” said Nick Curtin, Pharm.D., co-owner of Curtin Drug, a retail pharmacy in Glenpool, Okla. “It took out the entire window frame, bricks, drywall, everything. It took out displays and waiting chairs. It broke the countertop. We had a photo kiosk. It broke that,” he said. “It was tens of thousands of dollars of damage for literally just a few bottles of medicine.”

But Curtin and his wife and co-owner, Amie Curtin, didn’t let the break-in stop them from serving patients. “We cleared the debris, put things back in place as much as we could and, although we had a big hole in the building, we were open at 9 a.m.,” Nick Curtin said. “We didn’t miss a single hour of business.”

This incident marked only the third successful break-in to the pharmacy during its six years of business. Until now, the pharmacy hadn’t been burglarized since it was targeted twice in one week back when it first opened in 2008. That was when Curtin decided to install the steel retractable security gate, which proved helpful at keeping out break-in attempts but not, unfortunately, a dually truck.

“We’ve had a lot of half attempts along the way but nobody has really broken in until now,” he said.

While it may seem like an extreme incident, this burglary isn’t an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence in the U.S. There has been a slow but steady increase in pharmacy break-ins over the past three years, according to Pharmacists Mutual Insurance Company.

And it doesn’t matter where the pharmacy is located. “Pharmacy crimes tend to occur most frequently in major metropolitan areas, to a large extent because pharmacies are concentrated there,” said Mike Warren, risk manager for Pharmacists Mutual. “But they can strike areas that have never had problems before—and then stop just as suddenly.”

Pharmacy crime can happen—and has happened—even in small communities. “It’s a pretty quiet community most of the time,” Curtin said of Glenpool, the small suburb of Tulsa his pharmacy serves. “We have one of the lowest crime rates in the state. It really can happen to anyone.”

Pharmacy security tips

Family Pharmacy, a regional chain of 28 pharmacies in southwest Missouri, has amped up its security since two of its locations were targeted in a string of break-ins back in 2006 and 2007.

“We’ve made some significant changes,” said BJ Jones, director of security at Family Pharmacy. “Basically the way our stores are set up now, if you come up and try to tamper with the building after hours, it sets off some kind of alarm. We have motion sensors, vibration sensors, RF (radio-frequency) sensors and heat sensors. We have quite a few little gadgets that we use.”

In addition to the multi-faceted alarm system, the pharmacies use a robust camera system, with cameras installed both inside and outside all locations.

Curtin Drug also uses a sophisticated camera system. “We installed a camera system with DVR, so it records in full-motion video 24/7,” Curtin said. The camera system features remote access, so Curtin can watch his pharmacy anytime, anywhere. The pharmacy also recently installed an exterior horn. “While the horn we had was deafening inside the store, the residential area behind the store couldn’t hear anything,” he said. “They didn’t know anything had happened.”

On top of installing a camera and alarm system, Jones recommends that pharmacy owners thoroughly inspect the construction of their buildings. “When people break in, they’ll come through the roof; they’ll try to bust through the walls; they’ll come through an empty suite next door,” Jones said. He suggests thinking about all of the possible entry points and, if needed, hiring a contractor who can provide some ideas on how to secure your building better. Contacting local law enforcement to request a security screening of your building is another option.

How to protect glass

One of the most important areas pharmacies need to secure is the glass front of their stores. “Glass is a big deal,” Jones said. “It’s very easy to break a piece of glass, run in, do what you want and get out. It’s called a smash-and-grab. They’re usually in and out in about 45 to 60 seconds, way before the cops have time to respond.”

Almost 50 percent of the burglaries reported to Pharmacists Mutual occur through the front of the store, typically by breaking the glass. Burglars also commonly enter by prying doors open, particularly wood and aluminum-framed doors.

Pharmacies have multiple methods to secure this common entry point. All Family Pharmacy locations use a type of laminate glass on their storefronts. “It’s basically the same type of glass that’s in the windshield of your car,” Jones said. “It’s made up of multiple layers of glass with laminate between those layers, which makes it pretty much shatter resistant.”

“I’ve seen on video people trying to break in with baseball bats, crowbars and hammers, and the glass barely chips,” he said.

Curtin opted for a steel retractable security gate instead of securing the glass itself. “Window films and things like that protect the glass, but they don’t deter thieves from trying,” he said. “With the steel gate, when you walk up, you can obviously tell that there’s a barrier to getting inside, so most of the time they just don’t even try.”

“Plus, it rolls away during the day, so it doesn’t look imposing. It doesn’t look like we’re working behind bars,” he said. “We wanted to make sure to still maintain the family atmosphere of our pharmacy, while having some good security.” The pharmacy also uses glass break sensors that set off an alarm immediately when any glass breaks. “That way the alarm goes off before someone has even accessed the store,” Curtin said.

Safely storing narcotics

In Jones’ experience, if someone breaks into a pharmacy it’s extremely likely that they’re after narcotics. “I’ve always heard stories about people going after Sudafed® for making meth. It was a bad problem in this area for a while,” Jones said. “But in every break-in we’ve ever had, not one person has gone after Sudafed. They always go after the narcotics.”

Because so many pharmacy crimes are related to narcotics, the DEA suggests that pharmacies keep controlled substances locked up tight. Regulations state that pharmacies must store controlled substances in a securely locked cabinet of substantial construction.

While the type of construction of the cabinet isn’t specified, the DEA does suggest that pharmacies take into consideration the crime rate in the area, the pharmacy’s history of theft, the quantity of controlled substances kept on hand, and the number of employees, customers and patients who have access to the controlled substances. A pharmacy may need more or less security to safely store narcotics depending on these factors.

All Family Pharmacy locations store narcotics in a time-delay safe. “It’s tough. It takes time to get into, which gives the police more time to respond,” Jones said.

For a pharmacy on a budget, Jones suggests making some simple additions to more tightly secure the narcotics cabinet. One option is to install a hasp, which is a metal fastener with a hinged slotted part that fits over a staple and is secured by a padlock. “Someone would have to have some bolt cutters to cut that off instead of just being able to pry the door open,” Jones said. “If you put four of them on the door, then it will take four times as long to get into the cabinet.”

Pharmacists Mutual suggests also using good practices such as locking overstock narcotics in a safe during the day, restricting personnel access to narcotics and keeping bottles with limited quantities on shelves to provide to armed robbers.

It’s also important to know what you have on hand, to keep accurate inventories and to periodically audit your controlled substance inventory. “This will be invaluable in getting reimbursement for stolen drugs,” said Warren of Pharmacists Mutual.

Staying alert in the pharmacy

Advanced security systems aren’t the only way to protect your business. Trained pharmacists and staff who check for suspicious persons—such as people who are not buying anything and just loitering in the store—are one of the most effective deterrents.

“All too often we encounter situations where criminals are seen on video crawling across the floor, entering back areas of the pharmacy, or only moving down limited numbers of aisles. This is often due to surveillance the criminal has done before the burglary,” Warren said. “Chances are, if you are robbed, the criminal has been in the store before looking for motion detectors, cameras, where drugs are kept and how employees handle visitors.”

For Family Pharmacy, a focus on customer service and security go hand in hand. “Every time our employees are at the front of the store and they greet customers coming in, they’re making eye contact with them,” Jones said. “Somebody who is there for less-than-ideal motives does not want to be contacted. They don’t want to make eye contact. They don’t want you to bother them. So, we want to help every single customer, even if they’re there to not really be our customer. We want to help them and basically get them out of the store.”

Becoming less of a target

At the end of the day, you want to take enough security measures to make your pharmacy not only difficult to break into, but so tough that thieves don’t even want to try.

“Well-lit pharmacies with visible cameras, crime prevention signage, alert employees and store arrangements where the pharmacy counter can be seen from the front are less attractive targets,” Warren said.

At Family Pharmacy, Jones said his philosophy behind security is to take up as much of a burglar’s time as possible. “Every second gives the police more time to apprehend them,” he said. “I look at security like an onion. It’s not just one big, bulky security system. It has layers. Every time you peel one back, there’s another one you have to go through and then another one.”

Curtin agrees. “You’re never going to stop anybody entirely,” he said. “There’s always a way. You want to make it take too much effort to get into your pharmacy, so that it’s easier for them to just go somewhere else.”

That’s what Curtin is working on right now, making his pharmacy just a little bit more difficult to crack, especially for vehicles. He recently installed steel poles in the ground outside his pharmacy, spaced a vehicle’s width apart. “You could take that same truck that hit me—or even an armored car—and hit my store and you’re probably not going to get past those poles,” he said.

And he suggests all pharmacies take similar precautions. “To me, it’s not the ‘if,’ it’s the ‘when.’ If you think it’s never going to happen to your pharmacy, you just haven’t waited long enough,” he said. “Preparing for it ahead of time will make life much easier. If you’re thinking ‘Nobody’s looking at my store, nobody’s thinking about breaking in,’ you’re wrong. It’s just a matter of time.”



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