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Police say Walmart program is reducing arrests, but one Tampa City Council member is not satisfied

Vehicles and patrons are seen outside the Walmart Supercenter located at 1505 N. Dale Mabry Highway. Walmart has introduced a diversion program at the store that gives first-time shoplifters a break by letting them take a class on retail theft and pay restitution rather than face criminal charges. The goal is to reduce police resources spent dealing with Walmarts in the city. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Vehicles and patrons are seen outside the Walmart Supercenter located at 1505 N. Dale Mabry Highway. Walmart has introduced a diversion program at the store that gives first-time shoplifters a break by letting them take a class on retail theft and pay restitution rather than face criminal charges. The goal is to reduce police resources spent dealing with Walmarts in the city. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Jun. 24, 2016

TAMPA — Walmart is still keeping Tampa police busy but a diversion program for people shoplifting items worth less than $25 is helping to reduce arrests and calls for police assistance

That's according to the Tampa Police Department, which on Thursday briefed the City Council on how often it is responding to thefts and other incidents at Walmart stores across the city.

The company introduced the diversion program at its Walmart Supercenter at 1505 N. Dale Mabry Highway in May 2015. It's designed to give a break to first-time shoplifters by letting them take a class on retail theft and pay restitution rather than face criminal charges.

Officers made 47 arrests at the store over the first four months of this year, police said, down from 85 arrests over the same period in 2015. There was less calls for help, too, with officers being dispatched to the store 294 times during that four-month period, down from 486 over the same period last year.

But the retail giant is still not providing enough security at its own stores, said Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick, who met June 8 with Walmart executives discuss security at a store on Hillsborough Avenue in East Tampa where the diversion program was introduced at this start of this month.

More than 120 arrests were made at the store in the first four months of this year, more than double the number made at any other Tampa store.

It is in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods and Reddick said he is concerned that employees there could get hurt if they end up dealing with shoplifters or other security issues.

"One question Walmart refused to answer is why they refuse to hire security guards at their stores," Reddick said. "It seems to me with prevention programs they're trying to save money."

Walmart officials did not respond directly to Reddick's concerns but said each store is analyzed to determine the level of security needed.

"We will continue to monitor what is happening in that store and we have the strongest safety measures in place," said Walmart spokeswoman, Deisha Barnett.

Reddick requested council be briefed on the policing of Walmart in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found local Walmarts in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties accounted for nearly 16,800 police calls in a single year.

The calls came in the rate of about two calls an hour, every hour of every day, for shoplifting or other thefts, but also for noncriminal incidents like rowdy teenagers and panhandling. The Times investigation found that calls diverted police resources from other law enforcement tasks.

The report presented to the council Thursday shows that Walmart stores are still a regular trouble spot for police.

Although the number of calls for police service in the first four months of this year has fallen at two of Tampa's seven Walmart stores, it rose by 10 percent at the Gandy Boulevard store where police were called on almost 200 occasions.

Although most stores saw fewer arrests compared to 2015, that still resulted in 242 arrests citywide.

Maj. Lee Bercaw said police and Walmart officials met in 2014 when the number of calls for assistance at the Dale Mabry store was spiking. Tampa police were called 1,579 times to the store that year, the report shows.

"In my opinion, we've been ahead of the curve with Walmart," Bercaw said.

Shoplifting and other fraud cost U.S. retailers $44 billion in 2014, according to a survey by the National Trade Federation and the University of Florida.

The diversion program, known as the Crime Accountability Program, is operated by Turning Point Justice and the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention and is voluntary for people who commit minor retail theft.

It includes a class intended to help participants understand the causes of their actions and to ensure they understand the effects of shoplifting.

"We're always looking at rolling out the program where it makes sense," said Barnett. "There may be stores in the area that will get it in the future."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226 3446. Follow: @codonnell_Times.

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