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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Walmart's police calls are a drain on public resources

Walmart opened a new Supercenter in Valrico on Wednesday (March 9). The opening on Bloomingdale Avenue came after protests and a suit filed by residents opposed to the development. Photo by Eric Vician.
Walmart opened a new Supercenter in Valrico on Wednesday (March 9). The opening on Bloomingdale Avenue came after protests and a suit filed by residents opposed to the development. Photo by Eric Vician.
Published May 16, 2016

The world's largest retailer pads its bottom line by relying on police to provide basic security at considerable cost to local taxpayers. That is the only reasonable conclusion from the Tampa Bay Times' detailed review of thousands of police calls to local Walmarts. There has to be a smarter way to fulfill government's obligation to protect everyone and enforce the law, and it should start with local governments insisting Walmart work as a better corporate partner to reduce its drain on public resources.

A review of nearly 16,800 calls in a single year to Walmarts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties revealed some startling trends. Times staff writers Zachary T. Sampson, Laura C. Morel and Eli Murray found sheriff's deputies in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties were called to Walmart stores more often than anyplace else. In Pinellas County, Walmarts ranked second. In Hillsborough, seven of the 10 busiest locations for the Sheriff's Office were Walmarts. These are numbers that cannot be explained away by the number of Walmarts or their store sizes or locations.

The details of the investigation are just as disturbing. Some 7,000 calls were for suspected thefts, and many of those involved inexpensive items such as a $10 gas can or a $6.39 electric toothbrush or $3 eye drops. There has to be a more time-saving, cost-efficient way of dealing with petty theft cases involving items worth less than $300. Another 9,000 police calls were for basic disorder such as trespassing or minor disturbances. How many of these situations could have been more efficiently handled by diffusing situations using store managers or private security than by calling police and arresting someone?

Every resident and business is entitled to call police for help or to report a potential crime, of course. But the evidence is overwhelming that Walmart is exploiting the use of the public's human and financial capital to hold down its costs. Meanwhile, the cost to taxpayers in time and money to pursue minor crime reports and disturbances at these stores is out of proportion. Beyond the direct law enforcement costs is the cost of police remaining near Walmarts that generate frequent calls when those officers could be put to better use in other parts of the community.

Walmart officials note its stores pay millions in local property taxes, but there are businesses such as Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg that pay higher property taxes and place significantly less strain on the police. And it's not just the general nature of large retail centers to trigger so many police calls. Individual Walmarts generate more calls than WestShore Plaza mall in Tampa. Walmarts within a few miles of Targets and within the same police jurisdictions generate far more police calls than the Targets. So these general explanations do not hold up.

What is more significant are the more specific issues at Walmarts that security experts and others cite as contributing factors for so many police calls: Low visibility of uniformed security officers or no uniformed security at certain times. Limited staffing in large stores. Poor interior design that creates spots attractive to would-be thieves. These are all areas that a national chain with the resources of Walmart could easily address if it focused more on the security of its customers and just a little less on saving money.

As security experts point out, there are other steps Walmart could take to reduce its burden on the criminal justice system that would require just a change in policy. It could reaffirm its announced plan of a decade ago to stop calling police for some first-time shoplifters who steal goods totalling less than $25. It could extend its diversion program that gives first-time shoplifters the option of paying restitution and completing online courses that only a handful of Tampa Bay Walmarts use.

Local governments and law enforcement agencies also have roles to play. They have to keep the public safe and respond to police calls, but they also have a responsibility to prudently spend public money and appropriately manage limited resources. They should reach out to Walmart officials, discuss the high number of police calls and work together on ways to reduce them.

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