Fulton County commissioners agreed Wednesday to require gas stations and convenience stores where crimes take place to improve their security and hire guards or risk losing their license to sell alcohol.
The move only applies to unincorporated Fulton County, most of which will become its own city this spring. Once the new city is formed, leadership there will have to decide if they want to mirror the county’s law.
Commissioners decided to make the change following an uptick in some crime at gas stations in the unincorporated area. Last year, there was a 12 percent increase in car thefts in the unincorporated part of the county and a 17 percent increase in thefts from motor vehicles. Car thefts from gas stations in December included those of the actress Queen Latifah and Marvin Arrington, Sr., a former Superior Court judge.
Arrington’s son, who is a Fulton County commissioner, first proposed the change to the county’s law before his father’s car was taken as he pumped gas.
The new law applies to businesses that sell gasoline where the following crimes have taken place: murder, robbery, theft by taking, sexual battery, aggravated assault, aggravated battery kidnapping or false imprisonment. Other unspecified crimes could also trigger the law, which would go into effect after one incident.
As part of the new law, gas stations would be required to have a security guard as well as a security camera system, a lighted parking lot, height markers on doors, a silent alarm to law enforcement and windows that have an unobstructed view. The stations also could not have tinted windows and would be required to train employees on robbery deterrence. If they don’t, they could lose their ability to sell alcohol. But an alcohol license cannot be suspended or revoked without a hearing in front of an administrative judge.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Daphne Jordan, a community activist who has been vocal about crime at the gas stations. “I think it’s a positive thing.”
The new law may be the first of many changes intended to curb crime. Commissioners also talked about the creation of a task force that would explore more solutions, a red hat squad that would patrol gas stations and the posting of safety scores in the windows of businesses. They are expected to consider more options at their next meeting, in two weeks.
The proposal passed 4-1, with Commissioner Liz Hausmann voting against the proposal. Commissioner Lee Morris abstained from the vote and Commissioner Bob Ellis was not present at the meeting.
Hausmann said she took the crime issues seriously, but wanted a comprehensive plan to deal with the crimes before taking steps that punish business owners.
Morris said he was “torn” about the ordinance because the businesses weren’t complicit in the so-called slider crimes, where perpetrators slide into unlocked cars while people pump gas.
“It isn’t because they have a liquor license that people are sliding into cars, it’s because they’re selling gas and that’s where the car is,” he said. “The businesses arguably deserve the government’s protection and they’re not getting it.”
A previous version of the alcohol license law allowed for the county to revoke licenses if crime occurred at the locations, Fulton County Police Chief Gary Stiles said. But it was intended for businesses that were involved in the criminal activity.
Stiles said “time will tell” if the new law will make a difference in the crimes. Though the entire metro area has experienced such crimes, he said in south Fulton the majority are occurring at five gas stations and are being perpetrated by fewer than two dozen people, most of them teens.
The police are catching the people responsible for these crimes, he said, but they are quickly able to bond out of jail and commit them again.
“The biggest breakdown occurs after arrest,” he said. “We all have the same problem, it’s catch and release.”
A better solution than tying liquor licenses to crimes would be to stop people from bonding out of jail where they them commit more crimes, Stiles said.
Chairman John Eaves said he supported the change because he wanted “to embolden the community” to believe they have an impact on policy as it’s developed. He said there is more the county can do to help impact crime, but that the new law was a good first step.
“I’m hoping it will have some immediate impact,” Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. said. “We’re going to take a multi-faceted approach to really attack this problem.”
STAY SAFE WHILE PUMPING GAS
To minimize the likelihood of having your car or other possessions stolen from a gas station, the Fulton County Police Department offers these tips:
Stop at gas stations with proper lighting and surveillance equipment.
Take your keys out of the car and lock the door while you pump gas.
Put any valuables in your car out of sight.
Don’t become distracted by cell phones. Stay alert.