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Departments : Think It Through

Robbery at a Fast Food Restaurant

An alarm sounds at an eatery and you suspect a stick-up. How will you respond?

November 17, 2015  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

In every call for service, you should think things through before you begin your response. Each call can be broken down into three phases: pre-response, response, and post-response. The following scenario is designed to help you think things through rather than give you a specific way to handle the call.

Situation

You get a call at 1:30 a.m. that the freezer alarm has been sounded at a local fast food restaurant with drive-through service that's located in a high-traffic tourist area of town. It's a Friday night during the summer and the place is crowded with tourists visiting the small amusement park complex connected by local shops and two bars. You know the restaurant closes at 1:00 and it usually takes about an hour for the employees to lock up and leave. There are rarely, if ever, false alarms at this location.

Initial Thoughts

Chances are this is not a false alarm, so you're taking this call very seriously. Your biggest problem is going to be dealing with the vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the area, as parts of the complex don't close until 3:00, including the bars. Although the bars stop serving alcohol at 2:00 a.m., they get packed with people who are not ready to go home yet and are trying to squeeze out one more hour of partying.

The burger place where the alarm sounded sits right in the middle of the two main parking lots and the entrance to the main complex. On both sides of the roads are hotels, shops, and two eateries that stay open 24/7. The area doesn't start to wind down until around 5:00 a.m. It's going to be a mess getting there, even going Code-3, and even more of a mess dealing with the crowds and locking down the crime scene. Chances are the suspect is already gone, but you never know until you get there.

Pre-Response

Think It Through Questions

  • How many units are needed to secure the area?
  • How many units are needed for traffic control?
  • Is a K-9 available for a building search?
  • Can I trust the information I get back from calling the restaurant?

You don't know if the suspects are still there or even if they are armed. You have to assume yes to both and respond appropriately. There is no real way to sneak up on the place because traffic is still very steady, and yet you don't want to run the risk of turning this into a hostage situation. You ask dispatch to call the restaurant and see if they get an answer; they don't. You need to think about traffic control and forming your inner perimeter. You also need to find a site to establish a command post in case this goes long term.

Response

Think It Through Questions

  • What's the smallest number of units needed to redirect traffic?
  • What's the smallest number of units needed to form an inner perimeter?
  • What's the minimum number of units I need to form an outer perimeter?
  • Where can I have EMS stage in case any victims are hurt?

Even though you try to follow WIN (what's important now), you have no choice but to handle several priorities at once. You need to do two things immediately: get to any victims and secure the inner perimeter. That's going to mean locking down a close perimeter on the building while at the same time clearing the crowds out of the way.

You get lucky because it's detail night and two off-duty officers working security at the complex respond. There are also more off-duty officers working details in the immediate area who can help you as well. You have dispatch try calling the business again as you arrive and get eyes on the scene. Still no response.

As you start controlling traffic on the main drag, and are thinking about how you will clear the building, a man wearing a restaurant uniform runs out the back of the business and heads toward one of the off-duty detail officers. He tells him the employees have been robbed at gunpoint, forced into the freezer, and the rest of the employees are OK. The employees are staying inside per their corporate policy until contact has been made with the police.

You grab the few officers not controlling traffic, call for everyone inside the building to come outside, and then search the building. At the sound of the all clear, you open up traffic on the main drag but keep your inner perimeter for the moment. Upon interview of the victims, you find out it's a typical story of an employee taking the trash out and being followed back inside.

At this point you learn that the suspect was armed with a handgun. The restaurant was robbed of all available cash, and the employees were placed in the freezer and told to wait to hit the alarm for at least 15 minutes or they would be killed later on. Being placed in a state of fear, they complied. By the time your first off-duty unit got there, the suspect had been gone for at least 20 minutes (the employees gave it an extra five minutes just to be safe).

You know that something doesn't sound right because the suspect knew about the freezer alarm. It was either a good guess, he has watched too many episodes of NCIS, or someone from inside has been helping him. Regardless, you need to call your robbery unit and pass the baton. You update your suspect description over the radio, secure the scene, and keep the victims segregated until the detectives arrive.

Since there is no K-9 available, trying to track the suspect is a bust. You cut everyone loose except for the officer taking the report and one other officer in case any leads develop you can follow up on. On any call like this, you wonder if the suspect is long gone or watching from a distance.

Post-Response

Think It Through Questions

  • Could our response have been any better?
  • How can we work with the restaurant on their closing procedures?
  • Can we work with the entertainment complex to install more security cameras?
  • Is there any way we can work with the off-duty detail officers any better?

Things didn't really get a chance to develop much because your response never really got past a few officers, so you decide to forgo debriefing. In this particular call you find out later that the corporate closing instructions were not followed. One of the victim's stories kept changing at the scene. Before the shift was over at 6:00 a.m., arrests had been made charging both the employee and the suspect with robbery. As you suspected, it was an inside job. A former employee planned the whole thing with his girlfriend who still worked there.

Final Thoughts

There are all types of ways this call could have gone. What if during the building search you had found that the suspect had killed all the employees? What if the suspect was still there and it turned into a barricaded suspect/hostage situation? What if, while you were setting up, the suspect had run out and started shooting at perimeter units? What if the suspect carjacked someone and went mobile with a hostage? These are the possible scenarios that need to be going through your mind in order to be prepared for them.

That's the nature of the beast; a call like this can be a simple false alarm or turn into a very complicated standoff. You have to be prepared for both and everything in between. There are always multiple possibilities and potential responses. Thinking it through now saves you time later.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office. He has over 28 years of law enforcement experience, is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, and holds a master's of political science from the University of Central Florida.


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