Last Saturday morning two masked men ran into our Veemarkt shop, put a gun to my head, waved a knife in my face, and moments later ran off with a few hundred euro in cash. I was alone since Wesley had just ridden a bakfiets full of trash off to the recycling center down the road. There wasn’t much I could do aside from stand still and subtly try to stay away from the knife the punk repeatedly threatened to slash me with without provoking him to actually do so. Several times he screamed at me “Where’s the cash?! Where’s the register?!” but it was obvious that his pistol wielding buddy had already cased the joint. He ran right upstairs to the correct drawer in the correct desk before I said a word.
It took me a moment to even realize what was going on. Is this a joke? Is a guy in a ski mask really pointing a pistol at my forehead? After a few seconds the neurons connected. Yes, that gun looks real enough. The big kitchen knife is certainly real. No I don’t have any prankster buddies with Moroccan-Amsterdam accents. And they’re yelling at me that it’s a robbery.
I’ve never been threatened so directly and dangerously before but I can easily imagine that different people could react in many ways. One might just be paralyzed from the fear. Or spurred into risky hero-action by the rush of adrenaline. I managed to keep it together. I just stood there quietly and tried to catalog as many characteristics of the two men as I could remember. I have a very good visual memory. I don’t mean to imply it’s easy under such stressful circumstances but I managed to get the following down:
Since customers don’t normally go upstairs Tom immediately recalled a suspicious incident a month or two ago: A young guy came in asking for change. Despite firmly telling him to stay downstairs he followed the employee upstairs, apparently to see where the cash is kept. When you run a couple retail shops all sorts of strange things happen but this one caught Tom’s attention for several reasons:
After last week’s robbery our descriptions of this character matched well, obviously given the limitations of what one can identify on a man wearing a woolen ski mask, a heavy sweatshirt with the hood over his head and baggy jeans.
When the men ran out (pistol guy falling and bumping down the stairs on his ass) I scrambled to find a phone and dial 1-1-2 as quickly as possible. I was running as soon as their backs were turned. Of course I later realized that one of the phones was actually sitting on the workbench within arm’s reach of where I’d been cornered. Oops, a ten second delay in calling the police. Phone in hand I ran outside hoping to see which direction they went. They were no longer visible but that in itself is an answer since there’s only one direction one could run and be out of sight within about 15 seconds. I assume they had a vehicle waiting around the corner and my vehicle prejudice says it was probably a scooter, but I didn’t actually hear or see anything to confirm that.
Reaching the police through the emergency line was frustrating though in retrospect it probably took less than a minute. The dispatcher couldn’t seem to understand why I wanted the police to come to the Veemarkt while another address (the billing address for the phone) was shown on her screen. But once they had the right address the police were there within a couple minutes. A better part of the day was then spent talking to the police, waiting for the forensics team to collect fingerprints and other samples, and then viewing a suspect through a one-way mirror. It was all pretty much like we see in movies and on TV except the criminals weren’t so polished and there was no dramatic music to make it more exciting.
This isn’t Workcycles’ first criminal incident this year. In fact it’s at least our third in just the last few months and it’s getting rather annoying to say the least:
A couple months ago and actually the last time I spent a Saturday at our Veemarkt shop a rather normal looking, well-dressed woman talked to an employee about Cargobikes, rode off on a test ride and never came back. Upon inspection we discovered that the wallet she’d left behind was filled with nothing but fake cards and small change.
We’ve also recently had two incidents at the Lijnbaansgracht shop that we can only guess were botched or failed robbery attempts. One unfortunately resulted in a fight between an employee and one of the perps, apparently instigated as a diversion.
So it’s clearly time for some changes to make it safer for everybody except the criminals. In the grand scheme the material losses are annoying but minimal. The risk of an employee, customer, family member (my kids are often in the shops) or bystander getting hurt has to be minimized.
Change number one: Eliminate cash from Workcycles’ stores.
In the Netherlands this is not so difficult. The locals already pay for most things with debit cards instead of cash. Tourists almost always have credit cards. The only significant challenge is the rentals, for which we’ve always taken a cash deposit. That’s always been an annoyance but neither the debit card nor the Dutch credit card system allow reserving deposits or making refunds. We now have an alternative credit card system that we can employ for deposits but many Dutch simply don’t have credit cards. Whatever. We’ll figure it out and then make sure that even semi-literate cretins can see that there’s no cash to take here. It’ll make our bookkeeping a good deal simpler too.
Change number two: Surveillance cameras in our shops.
I’ve always been opposed to such things but it’s both a good deterrent and would have helped the police in each of the cases above. Of course I mean REAL cameras and recording systems, not the ubiquitous fake cameras with red LED light one buys for a few euro on the Internet. Then we’ll somehow make it very clear that there are cameras. Yuck, but we need it.
Change number three: Silent alarms.
After last Saturday’s robbery I thought through the incident about 75,000 times finally coming to the conclusion that, under the circumstances, I couldn’t have done anything much differently or significantly better. I wish I could have remembered even more, noted the perp’s shoes for example but that doesn’t make much difference anyway. What I really missed was a way to silently alert the police that I was in danger, and in most of the incidents we’ve had the criminals were around longer than it took the police to reach us. I tinkered unsuccessfully with my iPhone to find a way to make an emergency call from my back pocket. That would be handy but does such an app exist? Even if it does we can’t count on every employee always having a certain type of mobile phone in their pocket. No, much better would be “panic buttons” discretely located in various places. Considering that one push of the button brings the police some care would have to be taken to ensure that they don’t get touched accidentally.
Meanwhile the police are apparently working on the case and have two potential suspects. I’ve complained about the Amsterdam police in these pages before but it’s clear that they do take the matter very seriously when weapons are involved. I’m OK and relieved not only of several hundred euro, but also that nobody was hurt.