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New York ‘panic button’ plan faces pushback

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(The Center Square) — Major retailers and law enforcement officials are urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to veto a plan that would require large New York stores to install “panic” buttons to alert police about retail crime.

The Retail Worker Safety Act, passed by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature earlier this month, would require Walmart, Target and other major retailers with more than 500 employees nationwide to install panic buttons in their stores or provide employees with mobile-phone-activated or wearable alert systems.

Lawmakers who approved the proposal said it comes in response to rising threats to store clerks and other retail workers from thefts and violence.

But retail industry lobbyists, including the National Retail Federation and the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, are pushing back against the proposed rule and calling on Hochul to veto the proposal. Most cite concerns that the costly security upgrades will be ineffective in stopping violence and theft.

“The costly mandates proposed in the bill — including the installation of panic buttons — will do little, if anything, to address recidivists entering stores with the intent to engage in illegal activity such as shoplifting and assault,” the groups wrote in a recent letter to legislative leaders.

Dan Bartlett, Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, told Reuters that the company opposes the panic button because it believes it would create too many false alarms.

“Eight out of 10 times somebody thinks something’s going on, there’s actually not,” he said in a recent interview.

In 2019, the New York City Council considered a proposal to install panic buttons in taxi cabs, but it was met with opposition from law enforcement officials who cited concerns about the effectiveness of the systems to alert authorities.

Hochul signed a bill in 2022 that requires New York schools to consider installing silent panic alarms to alert police during an emergency.

The Retail Worker Safety Act is being pushed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, representing more than 100,000 workers, which argues it will help protect retail workers from workplace violence. The group has poured money into a campaign to promote the changes and to urge state leaders to approve them.

“Throughout this campaign, we have heard deeply troubling workers’ stories from all over the state — stories of violent crimes, senseless shootings and harassment,” Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, said in a statement urging Hochul to sign the bill. “Retail workers should not go to work every day in fear.”

Under the proposal, the New York State Department of Labor would be required to set a workplace violence prevention policy for employers, including a list of factors or situations that might place retail employees at risk. It would require stores with 10 or more employees to provide violence prevention and safety training, including de-escalation tactics, active shooter drills and the use of security alarms and panic buttons.

Gov. Kathy Hochul pledged to address retail theft as part of her State of the State address earlier this year, citing increased property crime levels since the pandemic.

“Business owners and retail workers are facing increased stress and financial strain, and New Yorkers are concerned and frustrated running simple errands at a local pharmacy, grocery store, or retail shop,” the Democrat said.

The bill, if signed by Hochul, would go into effect 180 days after it becomes law, but the panic button requirement wouldn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2027.

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