Panic buttons demanded as violence surges in New York

In just two weeks, attacks have been reported in several New York City boroughs. Bodega staff have been beaten, shot and in one case, stabbed to death

Policías investigan un robo y asesinato en un deli en Manhattan (Nueva York), en marzo de 2024.
Police officers investigate a robbery and murder at a bodega in Manhattan, New York, in March 2024.Barry Williams (Getty Images)
Ana Vidal Egea

Oralia Amad, a 41-year-old Mexican mother of three, had been working at the A&D Deli Grocery store on 188th Street in the Bronx for four months when she was brutally assaulted. The attacker was a man who had purchased a hookah for $30 at the store and had twice tried to return it without success. Two days later, on Saturday, June 22, he approached Oralia again and attacked her by hitting her over the head with a hammer, breaking her nose and rendering her unconscious.

At midnight on June 17, a 62-year-old employee suffered a skull fracture after being beaten at a store in Elmhurst, Queens. And there were two other incidents in the Bronx days later. In one, an employee was shot in the chest after an altercation with a customer at noon and in the other, the owner of 69 Deli Grocery was fatally stabbed 10 times after refusing to give change to a customer. In all cases, the criminals are still at large. That is why United Bodegas of America (UBA), an association of bodega (small grocery store) owners created in New York in 2018, launched a pilot program last week whereby it has installed panic buttons in four bodegas that are located in high-risk areas due to high levels of crime.

UBA guarantees that by pressing one of these buttons, the police, emergency services and anyone else added to the system — neighbors, family, friends, etc. — will receive an alert within two seconds. Other neighboring stores will also be monitored. The installation of the first devices was carried out with the help of the digital security company, SaferWatch. As that company’s CEO, Geno Roefaro, explained during the program’s launch, the same panic button system is already in use in several government and public buildings around the country. “This technology has already saved many lives and prevented incidents from escalating,” he said during the presentation.

From a hospital room, a still convalescing Oralia Amad asked for more panic buttons to be installed “to alert the neighbors in the area... To have more communication,” according to a video broadcast by Telemundo. There are a total of 30,000 bodegas in New York. Bodegas are part of the city’s culture; 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, from a carton of milk, toilet paper, chewing gum to a copy of your keys. But most importantly, employees often form a bond with customers that sometimes borders on affection. They know their names through personal relationships that have been built up over the years. Many feel as comfortable in the neighborhood bodega as they do in their own home. Protecting these establishments is also a way of caring for the city, its legacy and its inhabitants.

En mayo de 2023, policías en un deli en Queens investigan el asesinato de un cliente altercado por un hombre ajeno al establecimiento.
In May 2023, police officers at a bodega in Queens investigate the murder of a customer.Theodore Parisienne (Getty Images)

For UBA president Fernando Radhamés Rodríguez, impunity is behind attacks. “They know there are no consequences. Even if they are taken to jail, they are released without bail. We were more protected with Giuliani and with Bloomberg,” Radhamés explains, referring to two previous New York mayors, both Republicans. “Now nobody seems to care, and they do what they want. That’s why we need more security.” So far this year, the New York Police Department has recorded a total of 8,211 robberies across the city, up 4.9% from 2023.

Radhamés points out that the episodes of violence are reaching well-to-do neighborhoods, where violence is not as common as in other areas of the city. They want the laws changed “to duly punish the wrongdoers who insult and physically and verbally assault the bodega owners,” that police surveillance be increased and that officers can be on the scene faster.

$3,000 per year per button

The biggest obstacle to expanding this pilot program is its cost: panic buttons cost around $3,000 a year to install and maintain. This is an expense that not all bodega owners can afford. The UBA has called for politicians to mobilize to ensure the safety of bodega owners and employees, with the installation of panic buttons fully or partially publicly funded, given that episodes of violence in bodegas have increased in all five boroughs of New York. So far, there has been no promise, but Radhamés is still in discussions. Oswald Feliz, Councilman for New York City’s 15th District, 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 grocery and tobacco store across the street from the Bird of a Feather restaurant in Williamsburg, where armed robberies occurred on June 21 and June 27. This is unheard of in this part of Brooklyn — one of the most affluent neighborhoods of New York, also known for being one of the safest. “We’re open until 3 a.m. and if there’s a break in, we wouldn’t have time to call 911. How are we going to protect ourselves?”

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