POSTED ON FEBRUARY 16, 2011:
RX for The Cure
National media attention and aroused police wrote prescription to solve pharmacy robberies, police say
A wave of pharmacy robberies that took place throughout Tulsa in 2010 appears to have subsided, as only one pharmacy has been held up so far this year, according to Tulsa Police.
Sgt. Dave Walker, who supervises the department's robbery unit, said 36 pharmacy robberies were reported in the city last year. But as of Feb. 11, only one such incident had been reported this year -- on Feb. 4 at the Couch Pharmacy, 444 S. Sheridan Rd.
"The trend is, it's dipped to a trickle," Walker said.
Walker said a handful of groups were responsible for most of the robberies last year, and when police arrested several members of those groups last fall, the number of hold-ups began to go down. He said increased media attention on the robberies also contributed to the decline.
The robbery of the Couch Pharmacy earlier this year was different from most robberies last year, Walker said, because the suspect was a man looking for drugs to feed his own addiction. The groups behind most of the robberies in 2010, he said, were stealing the drugs and then selling them to addicts.
Authorities have said the increase in such incidents is likely a result of the increased illegal use of such drugs as OxyContin in recent years.
"A lot of the youth of today are doing pills instead of taking other illegal drugs like crack," Walker said. "Crack sales are down."
Despite the decline in the robberies since last fall, Tulsa was one of a handful of communities featured in a recent New York Times story on the trend of increased pharmacy hold-ups across the country. Citing Drug Enforcement Administration figures, the Times reported that Florida, Indiana, California, Ohio and Washington have had the biggest number of pharmacy robberies since January 2008, although Oklahoma, Maine and Oregon had the biggest increases last year. More than 1,800 such incidents have been reported across the United States over the last three years, according to the story.
Walker said last year's surge in pharmacy robberies in Tulsa was unprecedented. In 2009, he said, only 16 were reported.
"It was nothing we really paid attention to before," he said. "But last year, it was like, 'Holy crap!' "
The problem had become so bad by last fall that Tulsa Police met with a group of pharmacy owners and managers in October, advising them on how to avoid becoming a robbery target. Most of the recommendations presented at that were of a common-sense nature, Walker said, such as limiting access to the pharmacy itself, as well as making sure a robber would have to travel a serpentine route to exit a store after holding it up. Walker said store owners and managers also were advised to place cameras near eye level near entrances in order to capture images of suspects when they entered the store and before they put on a mask. And employees were advised to study the faces of suspects for scars or tattoos, rather than concentrating on a robber's clothing, which is usually discarded quickly after an incident, he said.
Walker said he wasn't sure how much of an impact that meeting had on the string of robberies, though he acknowledged it created a lot of awareness.
"I'd like to say it was the thing (that stopped them) because then we'd have meetings for everything," he said.
Now that the individuals he believes were responsible for most of the incidents last year have been taken off the streets, Walker thinks the problem has been addressed.
"We're assuming we've weathered that storm," he said. "We haven't seen it since October."
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