Grocers ask for funds to install panic buttons in the face of the wave of violence in New York

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Oralia Amad, a 41-year-old Mexican mother of three, had been working at the A&D Deli Grocery on 188th Street in the Bronx for four months when she was brutally attacked. The attacker was a man who had bought a hookah (for $30) at the establishment and had shown up twice to try to return it without success. Two days later, on Saturday, June 22, he impersonated her again and attacked Oralia by hitting her on the head with a hammer, which caused a fractured nose and left her unconscious. This is not the only case. At midnight on June 17, a 62-year-old employee suffered a skull fracture after being beaten in a store in Elmhurst, Queens. And there have been two other incidents in the Bronx days later. In one of them, a bodega employee was shot in the chest after an altercation with a customer at midday, and in the other, on June 20, the owner of a bodega (69 Deli Grocery) was stabbed ten times to death, after refusing to give change to a customer. In all cases, the criminals remain at large. That is why United Bodegas of America (UBA), an association of bodega owners created in New York in 2018, launched a pilot program last week through which it has installed panic buttons in four bodegas that are located in high-risk areas due to high crime. The UBA guarantees that by pressing one of these buttons, within two seconds, the police, emergency services and anyone else who is added to the system (neighbors, family, friends, etc.) will receive a danger alert. Other neighboring bodegas will also be tampered with. The installation of the first devices was carried out with the help of the digital security company SaferWatch. According to the company's CEO, Geno Roefaro, during the launch of the program last week, the same panic button system is already used in several government buildings and other public buildings in the country. «These technologies have already saved many lives and prevented incidents from getting worse,» he said during the presentation. From the hospital room where she was admitted, a still convalescing Oralia Amad asked for more panic buttons to be installed «to warn the neighbors in the area, the other bodegas… To have more communication,» according to a video broadcast by Telemundo. Along with Amad, there are a total of 30,000 bodegueros in New York. The bodegas are part of the soul and culture of the city; they are on every corner and every New Yorker has their favorite. Many are open 24 hours a day and you can get anything you need urgently: from a carton of milk, toilet paper, gum, or a copy of your keys. But most importantly, employees often maintain a relationship of familiarity with customers that sometimes borders on affection. They know the names of many of their customers through personal relationships that have been built up over the years. Many feel as comfortable in the neighborhood bodega as in their own home. Protecting these establishments is also a way of taking care of the city, its legacy and its inhabitants.In May 2023, police officers at a deli in Queens investigate the murder of a customer who was attacked by an outsider. Theodore Parisienne (Getty Images)For UBA president Fernando Radhamés Rodríguez, the reason attacks like the one on Amad have become common is impunity. “They know there are no consequences. Even if they are arrested, they are released without bail. We were more protected under Giuliani and Bloomberg,” Radhamés explains over the phone, referring to two previous mayors of New York, both Republicans. “Now nobody seems to care and they do what they want. That’s why we need more security,” he adds. Overall, so far this year, the New York police have recorded a total of 8,211 robberies throughout the city, 4.9% more than in 2023. In addition, Radhamés highlights that episodes of violence are reaching unusual places, well-off neighborhoods where violence is not as common as in other areas of the city. That is why they demand that the laws be changed «to properly punish the criminals who insult and physically and verbally attack the shopkeepers,» that police surveillance be increased and that officers be able to arrive more quickly.

$3,000 a year per button

The biggest obstacle to expanding the pilot program is its cost: installing and maintaining panic buttons costs about $3,000 a year. That's an expense not all bodega owners can afford. UBA is therefore calling on politicians to step in to ensure the safety of bodega owners and employees. They are being asked to help ensure that the installation of panic buttons is fully or partially funded with public funds, given that episodes of violence in bodegas have increased in all five boroughs of New York. So far, there have been no promises, but Radhamés remains hopeful because he has received some calls about it. Oswald Feliz, alderman for New York City's 15th ward, has publicly stated that he wants to convince his colleagues to invest $15 million in the program. «This used to be a quiet neighborhood, but now we feel very unsafe because of the robberies,» says Amir Hussein, one of the partners of the bodega and tobacco shop across from Bird of a Feather in Williamsburg. This restaurant has been one of the places where armed robberies have occurred in the last week (on June 21 and 27). Something unusual in this part of Brooklyn, since it is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in New York, also known for being one of the most gentrified and safe. “We are open until three in the morning and if someone breaks in to steal, we wouldn’t have time to call 911, how are we going to protect ourselves?”