PORT RICHEY — It is not often that the head of a police department feels the need to comment on a retailer's decision to reduce its hours of operation.
But when Walmart decided this month to close its Port Richey store for six hours each early morning, it brought a sigh of relief from Port Richey police Chief Gerard DeCanio, and he was not bashful about expressing his opinion.
"I was happy to hear it, and so were our guys" DeCanio said.
The reduced hours, he said, will finally give his officers a break from the high volume of calls for service that come from the retail giant's store.
The Walmart store, at 8701 U.S. 19, which previously operated 24 hours a day, has begun closing from midnight to 6 a.m. DeCanio said details have been few from local store managers as to why hours were cut, but there have been discussions over shoplifting problems at the store during meetings with staffers there.
"They are saying they are taking some pretty big hits. I don't know if it's any more than any other of their stores," he said.
One thing is for sure, DeCanio said. The store is a major drain on police resources, regularly tying up hours of officers' time. Ironically, on March 11, the day the Walmart began closing, Port Richey officers responded to 11 calls at the store — from trespassing to grand theft to dealing with a fight, the chief said.
Law enforcement issues at local Walmarts was chronicled in a Tampa Bay Times analysis published last May. The Times found nearly 16,800 calls in one year to Walmarts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, or about two calls an hour, every hour, every day.
"There's a myriad of things we are called for there," DeCanio said of the Port Richey store. "It just eats up our resources. Any law enforcement agency that has a Walmart is just getting killed."
It is not a new complaint from Port Richey police. DeCanio's predecessor, Rob Lovering, delivered a scathing report to the City Council in 2015 showing that the local Walmart was the source of nearly half of the city's crime statistics submitted to the state.
DeCanio said he plans to continue to meet with Walmart managers to come up with ways to ease the burden on his department, but solutions are difficult. One request made by the chief — for Walmart to put uniformed security officers in the store — has been rebuffed, he said.
A Walmart spokeswoman in Arkansas, Leslee Wright, did not address questions as to whether crime was the reason for the change at the Port Richey location. In an email, she said:
"We are constantly reviewing our business to determine operations decisions at our stores. Based on a recent review of our customers' shopping patterns we have made the decision to adjust hours at this store. This is the kind of decision we make on a store-by-store basis and will allow us the ability to reallocate resources to serve our customers during peak shopping hours."
DeCanio isn't sure closing overnight will help, but at least it's something.
"At least it will give us a six-hour block," he said, "where we don't have to go up there."