Walmart is the United States’ biggest employer. Its low-pay and few benefits are controversial, since many Walmart workers then rely on social services to bridge the gap in human services. However, a new report by The Tampa Bay Times has highlighted another unusual and unexpected result of having such a large workforce: that local police departments are acting as private security firms for Walmart.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Tampa area Walmarts resulted in 16,800 calls for theft, drug use, assault and other acts in just a single year. The newspaper found that Walmarts generated about four times as many police calls as nearby stores like Target. Some Walmart Supercenters, the largest version of the retailer, even generated more police reports than the WestShore Plaza Mall, which is one of the Tampa area’s largest retail centers.
Walmart creates so many more police calls than its competitors, that experts said Walmart had essentially farmed out its basic security function to local police, meaning that taxpayers are footing the bill. Law enforcement officers told the newspaper that the number of hours officers spend at Walmart calls reduce the number of hours they can patrol other neighborhoods, potentially taking them off other crimes.
“They’re a huge problem in terms of the amount of time that’s spent there,” said Tampa police Officer James Smith, who specializes in retail crime. “We are, as a department, at the mercy of what they want to do.”
The kinds of crimes officers were responding to were not always serious. Of the more than 16,000 calls, less than 500 involved violence, drugs or weapons. Around 7,000 of the calls involved potential thefts. Surprisingly, the biggest category of calls was for random disorder, such as trespassing, parking violations, people sleeping inside or outside the store and lost property reports. The 9,000 calls were incredibly burdensome for officers, resulting in hundreds of hours of time, and only resulted in a few hundred arrests.
The Tampa Bay Times also discovered that the Walmart security problem is not confined to just one store. All of the stores are burdening local police.
Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies ended up at a Walmart on Fletcher Avenue more than any other location. What came second? Another Walmart. What was third? Another Walmart. In fact, seven of the Sheriff’s Office’s 10 busiest locations were Walmarts.
Sheriff’s Col. Greg Brown responded to the Times request for comment by expressing his frustration. “It is a tremendous strain on manpower,” he said. Brown and other sheriffs’ departments are suggesting fining Walmart for excessive police phone calls.
Other businesses in the area are frustrated because they pay a lot more in property taxes but receive fewer police attention. For example, the Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg paid nearly four times as much in taxes as three nearby supercenters combined. However, the the mall attracted far fewer police calls.
Another significant issue is the tendency of officers to make unsolicited calls. Since officers know that Walmart is a regular stop, they often show up without being contacted. Adding Walmart to their rounds causes them to “hover around stores and parking lots to avert further issues, providing even more taxpayer-funded crime prevention. The Times found 6,200 of these unsolicited visits on top of the 16,800 other calls.”