More pharmacists arming themselves to protect against robberies

More East Tenn. pharmacists arming themselves to protect against robberies

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"We have employees at all our locations that are licensed and permitted for concealed carry," said pharmacy owner David Belew. "We have employees at all our locations that are licensed and permitted for concealed carry," said pharmacy owner David Belew.
A friendly reminder is on display for all to see at Gordon's Pharmacy in Karns. A shotgun hangs above the doorway. A friendly reminder is on display for all to see at Gordon's Pharmacy in Karns. A shotgun hangs above the doorway.
It's meant mostly as a joke, but the pistol holstered to his hip is not. It's meant mostly as a joke, but the pistol holstered to his hip is not.
"We just came to a point where we had to do something," said Mike Gordon. "We just came to a point where we had to do something," said Mike Gordon.
In the last three years, there have been 54 robberies and burglaries at pharmacies in Knoxville and Knox County. The crimes are not confined to one area. In the last three years, there have been 54 robberies and burglaries at pharmacies in Knoxville and Knox County. The crimes are not confined to one area.

By ALEXIS ZOTOS
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) -  The epidemic of prescription pill addiction in Tennessee often means pharmacies are a major target for crime. Some of those pharmacists are fighting back.

A pharmacy robbery turned deadly in May in Bean Station. Pharmacy owner Stephen Lovell and customer Richard Sommerville were shot and killed when Jason Holt, 37, walked into the pharmacy and robbed them of a large quantity of Oxycodone pills. Two other workers were injured.

The memory of that fatal robbery is fresh in the minds of those that work behind the counter.

"That could have been any of us," explained David Belew, owner and pharmacist at Belew Pharmacy.

The prescription pill problem nationwide, and especially in East Tennessee, often puts the pharmacists who distribute those pills in the line of danger. Many are taking extreme measures to protect themselves and their customers.

"We have employees at all our locations that are licensed and permitted for concealed carry," said Belew.

Surveillance video has captured thieves leaping over the counter, entering the stores at all hours of the day and demanding pills from pharmacists at gunpoint.

Now, pharmacists are beefing up security. The high demand narcotics are locked up, state-of-the-art cameras monitor all angles of the store, and at several pharmacies, a gun is within reach.

"We feel it's important that we be able to defend ourselves in the event that something happens," said Belew.

A friendly reminder is on display for all to see at Gordon's Pharmacy in Karns. A shotgun hangs above the doorway.

"It says, ‘We have already tried kindness, understanding and patience,'" says owner and pharmacist Mike Gordon.

It's meant mostly as a joke, but the pistol holstered to his hip is not.

"We just came to a point where we had to do something," said Gordon.

In the last three years, there have been 54 robberies and burglaries at pharmacies in Knoxville and Knox County. The crimes are not confined to one area.

"They're happening everywhere," explained Lt. Brad Hall with Knox County Sheriff's Department.  

Gordon's and Belew pharmacies have been hit multiple times, but their guns aren't meant to protect the drugs.

"The first issue is to get the individual satisfied and out of the building to where any possible threat to patients or employees is taken care of as quickly as possible," explained Belew. "The individual coming in gets what they ask for."

The oxycodone pills are often what they're after. Nationwide pharmacy robberies and burglaries have been on the rise for nearly a decade, and Tennessee ranks in the top ten.

Locally, those numbers are going down and law enforcement attributes that to increase security measures at pharmacies.

"I think those things have occurred because the pharmacies have set in place a lot of protocols. They've changed the surveillance equipment. Everything is more state-of-the-art," explained Lt. Hall.

Those protocols differ from chain pharmacies to the independents.

Walgreens, CVS and Kroger do not allow employees to carry guns, but do employ other security measures like surveillance cameras and time lock safes.

A large majority of the robberies and burglaries in Knoxville and Knox County -- 74 percent over the last three years -- happened at chain pharmacies. Many have been hit more than once.

Lt. Hall says that more because of the convenience factor.

"The chain stores seem to be everywhere, so that makes it more accessible," explained Lt. Hall. "They often pick stores that are in populated areas and that have more than one way in and out of the parking lot."

Lt. Hall says he doesn't think having a firearm will necessarily stop these criminals.

"They may go across the street if there's another [pharmacy], or they may confront you, and then you're in that situation that you have to make a decision whether you're going to pull your weapon," said Lt. Hall.

He says the best thing pharmacists can do in the event of a robbery or burglary is be a good witness.

"Be observant, be a good witness for the police so we can catch them. If you try to get in a confrontation with the person, then that's putting yourself in harms way. Don't be a hero. That's our job," he said.

With Bean Station still fresh in their minds, pharmacists like Mike Gordon and David Belew have those guns stashed under the counter and holstered to their hips for that worst case scenario.

"From what we know, [the Bean Station employees] did what they were supposed to do and it didn't stop him," recalled Belew. "It's always fear of life is the only reason you would use it. It gives us the opportunity to protect ourselves and our co-workers and our patients in the event something like that we're to happen here."

Mapping the crimes

From January 2011 to today, there have been 54 robberies and burglaries in Knoxville and Knox County. Multiple pharmacies have been hit more than once.

Click on a dot to see the pharmacy and when the robbery or burglary happened.

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