Mesa is about to test whether it can slash crime at its convenience stores by requiring an array of security measures that the industry has spent two years fighting.
The city's rules would be the toughest in the Valley and apply to about 150 corporate and mom-and-pop stores. Store owners could be forced to spend perhaps $20,000 in video equipment or other measures. Merchants still reeling from the recession said that kind of expense could put them out of business, which triggered a two-year debate on the City Council about whether Mesa was going too far.
But Mesa is now allowing stores to develop alternative safety plans, with the police chief's approval.
The Arizona Food Marketing Alliance dropped its opposition when Mesa introduced its opt-out provision. The industry thought good operators were being punished under earlier proposals that would require every security measure at every location, Alliance president Tim McCabe said.
"We really do not feel that an ordinance was necessary to deal with this because a lot of these stores already are doing a significant amount of crime prevention measures now," he said.
Mesa points to statistics to argue some stores aren't doing enough.
The 10 stores with the highest number of police calls account for 46 percent of all convenience store activity, according to the city. That's a huge drain on police at a time when the city has had to cut public safety, Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh said.
Some elected officials were hesitant to require all the measures at all the stores because of the cost, especially to small operators. But Kavanaugh pointed to a study by Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at Arizona State University to refute that. It showed chain stores accounted for the top 10 worst stores tracked in Mesa, Tempe, Glendale and Peoria.
Kavanaugh has been critical of Circle K, which has eight of Mesa's 10 most problematic stores. The ASU study found Circle K stores had a majority presence for each city's top 10 list.
The study helped gain support for Mesa's ordinance, said Kavanaugh, who has pushed the issue through his role as chairman of the city's Public Safety Committee.
"Some of the testimony was suggesting that we're creating a great hardship for the small stores, but really it's the big corporate-owned stores - owned by Circle K - that are creating the challenges for the whole department," he said. "It indicated at least in my perspective that Circle K has some major work to do in terms of public safety."
The study found Circle K operates about one-third of convenience stores in Mesa and Tempe, but has more than half of all crime in each city's convenience stores.
A Circle K representative did not return a call for comment. McCabe said the stores with high levels of police activity tend to be in neighborhoods with higher crime levels. Also, he said corporate-owned stores tend to invest more in security measures than independent ones.
He wouldn't reveal what the stores do, saying the industry shares its actions only with police to avoid showing their hand to criminals.
"I don't think a lot of these stores get all the credit they deserve for what they already do in preventing crime," he said.
Mesa's ordinance would require indoor and outdoor security cameras and storing the information for 15 days. Other requirements involve employee training, lighting, signs and drop safes. The component that got buy-in from the industry would let stores bypass costly security measures if they apply for an alternative security plan. Only stores with 30 calls a year or less in the past four years are eligible.
Kavanaugh said 42 stores have more calls than that and will have to implement all the city's requirements.
The City Council is set to vote on the ordinance Thursday.
McCabe said it's hard to predict the ordinance's impact if it's put into place.
"When you have 148 stores in a big city like Mesa, you have 148 individual situations. No one store is the same," he said.