Detroit police chief supports ban on gas station door locks

Detroit Police Chief James White voiced his full support for a proposal inspired by a fatal shooting to prohibit gas station clerks from locking customers inside their establishments.

City Council members condemned a clerk’s decision to lock the doors of a Mobil gas station on Detroit’s west side after Samuel McCray, 27, allegedly attempted to leave without paying for $4 worth of items in the early morning hours of May 6. An argument between McCray and the clerk escalated while others were trapped inside the store. McCray allegedly shot three men, killing one, before the clerk unlocked the doors and McCray fled. 

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has charged the clerk, 22-year-old Hamtramck resident Al-Hassan Aiyash, with involuntary manslaughter, arguing that he committed a “grossly negligent act” by allegedly trapping three men inside the gas station with a person who clearly threatened violence. Aiyash pushed a security button to unlock the door seconds before McCray allegedly began shooting, a press release notes.

Aiyash was not injured but now faces a felony charge with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Worthy said 37-year-old Gregory Kelly was found dead at the scene. Two other men were injured. One reportedly said McCray told the clerk he would shoot everyone inside the gas station if the doors stayed locked. 

Council President Mary Sheffield and President Pro Tem James Tate are working on legal changes to prohibit businesses from locking patrons inside or using electronic door-closing technology.  White told BridgeDetroit in a Thursday interview that he’s in favor of the proposed door-lock ban. Detroit’s police chief said the ban could be enforced during routine inspections by the city’s Buildings Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED). 

Detroit Police Chief James E. White speaks with the BridgeDetroit newsroom on May 18, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

“It’s a fantastic idea,” White said. “I can’t find a reason to logically lock a person inside. If you’re talking about someone stealing a candy bar, let them go. We’ll get them later. There’s no reason to lock a person in the store. I hope that passes and I will support it.” 

The gas station was a partner in Detroit’s Project Green Light surveillance system, which helped police identify and arrest McCray after he fled the scene. However, the business was unlicensed. 

“We have to do a better job with the business license and Green Light,” White told BridgeDetroit. “We’re getting ready to stand up the code enforcement unit in our department and that’s going to assist us in ensuring every Green Light business is licensed. You have to have a license to get a Green Light but we weren’t checking to see if you maintain your license. I think it’s very necessary for us to do that.”

Tate told BridgeDetroit on Monday that “nothing good can happen” from businesses locking patrons inside. 

“If they’re shoplifting or trashing the place and you lock them in, they’re only going to do more trashing,” Tate said. “When (electronic door locks) were instituted, many businesses didn’t have the technology they have now with video cameras and surveillance. Many of these businesses now have very sophisticated camera systems. I can capture the individual (and) information that can be used for an investigation that can lead to their arrest.” 

Tate said he’d still like to ensure businesses have the ability to lock people out from the outside. 

“It’s very important to note there’s some challenges being an owner of these types of establishments as well. You may see a threat coming to your business and may be the only individual at the store, whether you’re behind the glass or not, locking those doors may thwart a threat.” 

Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway called for criminal charges to be brought against the gas station clerk. She also said BSEED should require gas stations to train staff on customer safety and conflict deescalation.

“BSEED should revoke the business license of any business when a clerk endangers the safety of innocent customers,” Whitfield-Calloway said during the council’s formal session on Tuesday. “In my opinion, this was false imprisonment … The clerk is behind bulletproof glass, his safety was never in jeopardy.”

Teferi Brent, an organizer with violence prevention groups including Dignity 4 Detroit, said community activists have already been offering training to gas station employees across the city on cultural sensitivity, conflict resolution and how to identify triggers of violence. 

“If this gas station had been trained by us, I guarantee you this would not have happened,” Brent said. “The day after we met with several owners; they’re begging for it.” 

Brent is also pushing for the council to require gas stations to lock their doors after 11 p.m. and hold businesses accountable for violence against patrons. Brent said the effort dates back to a 2021 incident when a Detroit liquor store owner allegedly assaulted a woman, breaking her nose after an altercation. 

“This last act has to result in positive change,” Brent said in an interview. “All catastrophic incidents of this proportion result in procedural change, and this should be no different.” 

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