Bitter Pill to Swallow
It’s a familiar tale. Robbers walk into a drugstore and steal drugs and/or cash at gunpoint before fleeing. If the pharmacy’s staff and customers are lucky, no one is hurt.
But here’s a twist: Instead of getting away to rob again, the robbers are captured by police, on average, in less than 30 minutes.
One of the prescription drug bottles that a pharmacist placed into the thief’s bag has a GPS tracking device embedded in its cap. As soon as that device leaves the pharmacy, it activates, updating the robber’s route every six to seven seconds. The pursuing police know every turn the driver makes and within minutes, the thieves are in custody.
Although not well-publicized, apprehensions of this type have been happening since 2009, thanks to an innovative series of collaborations initiated by pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue Pharma, working with local law enforcement agencies as well as chain and independent retailers with pharmacies in locations with high crime risk.
Purdue Pharma initiated the program, which management calls “Bottle Tracking,” to protect innocent bystanders — retail pharmacists, store employees and customers — from the violence that can happen when armed robbers walk into a pharmacy intending to steal narcotics like Oxycontin, which can fetch as much as $1 per milligram on the street.
Their other motivation was to keep drugs off the street, helping to minimize the often-fatal abuse of narcotic drugs. According to a November 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis, death tolls from overdoses involving prescription painkillers more than tripled over the previous decade: More than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving narcotic pain relievers like hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxymorphone (Opana) and oxycodone (Oxycontin).
Michael O’Neil, drug diversion consultant and a pharmacy practice professor at South College School of Pharmacy in Knoxville, Tenn., said the high level of drug in each Oxycontin pill was part of why Purdue Pharma “stepped up and adopted GPS technology.”
Purdue Pharma vice president and chief security officer Mark Geraci describes the Bottle Tracking program “as another tool we put in place to combat abuse.
“We are always trying to think of creative ways to address drug diversion and abuse,” he says, “and this program has been extremely effective.”
There have been more than 90 arrests since it launched in 2009, he says, all without any injuries; collaborations are now in place for Bottle Tracking programs in more than 30 states.
“Operation Safety Cap”
An executive with a leading drug store retailer described how the technology worked in her chain’s pharmacies in a presentation last April at the National Rx Drug Abuse Summit in Orlando.
Describing the GPS tracking systems as “a new technology in law enforcement,” she called it “a very effective tool that can deliver immediate notification of robbery events to law enforcement, providing officers with accurate location data on the suspect, aiding in their apprehension and the recovery of stolen drugs.”
Geraci says that while Purdue provides the decoy bottles, a third party technology vendor inserts the GPS devices into the bottles along with some fake pills “so it sounds and feels real.” That firm also developed the computerized GPS satellite tracking system.
O’Neil, who also noted the effectiveness of GPS bottle tracking in a separate presentation at the Rx Summit, says the use of GPS tracking devices in retail loss prevention has been around for several years; as a security measure, those who use it generally decline to discuss it, believing “that if it becomes common knowledge, thieves will find a way to neutralize its effectiveness.
“There is the idea that if you create a better mousetrap, you will create a smarter mouse,” he says.
But because the technology is so effective, the news is getting out. In January 2013, the New York Police Department announced the launch of a GPS retail drug tracking program, done in collaboration with Purdue Pharma, that then-New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly called “Operation Safety Cap.”
Bridget Brennan, special narcotics prosecutor for New York City, described the GPS tracking system during the 2013 press event as “an excellent use of available technology to address a real problem.”
During her presentation at the Rx Summit, the chain drug executive said that one of the key advantages of using a concealed GPS tracking device is that pharmacists are not putting themselves at risk.
“It’s fully automatic so there’s nothing a pharmacist has to do except put it in the bag with the other drugs,” she said. “The device is silent so there’s no way an armed robber can know it’s in the bag. It looks just like a regular prescription bottle. There’s no noise, no activity. It’s a very valuable tool.”
In one instance, two individuals who were captured with their weapons and the drugs they had stolen “were connected to 20-plus open armed robbery cases against chain and independent pharmacies.”
In the presentation, she described how a June 2011 armed robbery of independently owned Haven Drugs in Medford, N.Y., ended with the execution-style killings of a pharmacist, a clerk and two customers. She described a similar robbery at Charlie’s Family Pharmacy in Seaford, N.Y., in January 2012, in which an ATF agent — a customer in the pharmacy who tried to stop the robbery — was killed by friendly fire from responding police.
Success stories about the tracking program have begun to filter out. Last December, a news report described how Scranton (Pa.) police were able to snag a would-be drug thief with the help of the GPS technology.
The police caught an armed man who had held up a CVS Pharmacy after the pharmacist placed a GPS tracking device in the bag containing the stolen loot. The suspect, the report said, was facing “a slew of robbery, drug and assault charges.”
That outcome — the capture of the robbers — is the primary goal of using GPS in retail pharmacy, O’Neil says.
“It isn’t just to get the drugs back. Someone who is willing to rob a pharmacy to get drugs is going to do it again and again, and, at some point, someone could get hurt,” he says.
“It’s also about keeping those drugs off the street. So the big issue is the prevention of further events from happening by capturing robbers.”