Crime & Courts

Walmart calls Columbia police nine times a day. You pay the bill

See the top 10 places in Columbia where the police are called

In 2017, Columbia police responded to a Walmart nine times a day. Here are the top 10 places where the police get called in Columbia, SC.
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In 2017, Columbia police responded to a Walmart nine times a day. Here are the top 10 places where the police get called in Columbia, SC.

Editor’s Note: Since publication, The State has learned of similarities in phrasing and structure between this story and this one written by The Tampa Bay Times in May of 2016. While we stand behind the reporting, information and conclusions in our story, the writing falls short of our standards for original work. We apologize to our readers and to the journalists at The Times.

Police come to arrest the person accused of stealing a $2 ChapStick and investigate the theft of $10 sunglasses. They’re asked to settle domestic spats, break up parking lot disputes and remove disorderly drunks.

These calls to police — thousands of which are made each year — chew up hours of the Columbia Police Department’s time. And they all start at Walmart.

Four Walmart locations rely on Columbia police more than any other establishment in the city, according to The State’s review of CPD crime data from 2014 to present. The big-box retailer generated far more calls to police compared to much larger shopping centers such as Columbiana Centre, which is home to more than 100 stores, and other comparable retailers like Target.

Last year alone, Columbia police responded to a Walmart, on average, nine times a day. That’s one call every three hours.

And taxpayers are settling the bill.

“Walmart looks at security as an expense,” said Burt Flickinger, a leading retail consultant based in New York. “They outsource that cost to the taxpayer.”

In the past four years, the vast majority of Walmart calls, about 40 percent, involved suspected theft. Only 8 percent dealt with violence or some kind of disturbance.

Columbia police recognized the problem in July and stopped responding to misdemeanor shoplifting calls if the suspect had already left the store, said Maj. Dana Oree. Businesses are now told to file a police report online.

“Just with that subtle change, we’ve been able to see a difference,” he said.

Now, officers are responding to roughly 20 percent fewer incidents of Walmart shoplifting, he said. But some question whether that goes far enough.

Walmart representatives recognize the problem, too, saying the company has invested millions in people, programs and technology to police their own stores.

The problem isn’t unique to Columbia. The sheriff’s departments of Richland and Lexington counties both said Walmart was the most active location for deputies in the same time period. And in 2016, Time magazine reported that 14 percent of the Camden Police Department’s incident reports originated at the Walmart there.

Other media reports from around the country show a similar trend of Walmarts using a disproportionate share of police resources, including a thorough analysis by The Tampa Bay Times in Florida.

Enormous store layouts, haphazard display of merchandise and the lack of parking lot guardianship might help explain the high calls for service, according to police and security consultants.

There are easy fixes.

Local and county governments could send Walmart a bill for its disproportionate use of police services. That’s what happened in Beech Grove, Ind., where the town’s mayor deemed the local Walmart a public nuisance and threatened it with fines of up to $2,500 for every minor offense reported to police.

Or Walmart could hire off-duty police officers, like many other businesses do in the city. Off-duty officers have all the same resources to write police reports, make arrests and transport people to jail — but the officer is paid by the business instead of taxpayers.

But there are no known plans to do either in Columbia.

“Walmart has been getting away with it for a long time and continues to get away with it. People have a hard enough time paying their own bills. They can’t afford to be subsidizing the wealthiest family in the country,” Flickinger said of Walmart’s founders, which has a collective net worth of nearly $175 billion.

‘Anyone and Everyone’

Other big box stores don’t have the same problem. Walmart has twice as many stores in Columbia compared to Target, but on average, still generated six times as many police calls per store.

A single Walmart location, 5420 Forest Drive, logged nearly as many calls to police as the much larger Columbiana Centre mall on Harbison Boulevard.

“There is, and has always been, such a disparity in the way that Walmart uses police resources compared to the way that other similar establishments like Target might,” said Seth Stoughton, associate professor of law at USC and a former police officer in Florida.

Stoughton, who is also a member of the Columbia Police’s Civilian Advisory Council, has reviewed data on this topic before.

“It’s really not much of an exaggeration,” he said. “Walmart will support the arrest and prosecution of anyone and everyone, and that’s just not the case with most businesses.”

It could take an hour or more for an officer to respond to a Walmart call, evaluate the situation, write a report and, if necessary, transport an offender to jail. That is time taken away from patrolling neighborhoods and keeping people safe, Stoughton said.

“There are a finite number of officers who have a finite amount of time to deal with whatever happens to come up in any given shift,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies prioritize calls, but that doesn’t entirely solve the problem with such a high volume coming from Walmart, he added. And while businesses are told to file police reports online for incidents of misdemeanor shoplifting, they can still request an officer to show up.

Stoughton wrote a paper on the practice of hiring officers out to private entities, and he believes it’s reasonable to ask businesses that use police resources disproportionately to hire off-duty officers.

“I’m very comfortable with the idea of requiring, encouraging or working with Walmart so that the bulk of their needs for police services would be fulfilled by off-duty officers, instead of diverting on-duty resources,” he said.

But it’s also a matter of perspective.

“As a taxpayer, I think it’s fair. But as a taxpayer, Walmart might not think it’s fair.”

Beefing up security

Walmart is the state’s largest employer, providing jobs to more than 32,000 South Carolinians. The company’s massive operations prop up an additional 13,000 jobs for suppliers in the state. And in South Carolina last year, the company paid more than $9.4 million in taxes, Walmart spokesman Casey Staheli said.

“The premise that we outsource (security) to law enforcement would imply that we somehow don’t contribute to the community,” Staheli said. “Like every member of the community, we also have a right to receive community services.”

But in the past four years, the Columbiana Centre paid close to $1 million more in taxes than the city’s four Walmart locations combined. Still, the mall attracted far fewer police calls.

Hundreds of people enter Walmart locations every day, and theft contributes to the vast majority of police calls, Staheli recognized. The value of items stolen can vary greatly — from a 24-year-old woman stealing two shirts at $21 each in the Walmart on Forest Drive in 2016, to a 23-year-old man attempting to walk out with four televisions totaling $8,700 at the same location in 2015.

Most stores have a threshold for what they’re willing to let slide, Staheli said. But he wouldn’t say whether the $2 tube of lip balm meets that threshold.

Walmart has taken steps to fix the problem by investing millions in hiring and training staff to police the stores, he said.

They’re called “asset protection associates” and they are specially trained to look for and prevent shoplifting. They’re the employees wearing yellow vests who check receipts as people leave the store. Others work undercover and behind the scenes.

However, beefing up in-store security only leads to more police calls, say law enforcement and security consultants. They wind up catching more people trying to steal.

Walmart uses internal store data coupled with crime data to determine whether to contract with local police for off-duty officers, a spokeswoman said. But she would not say when the last time that happened in Columbia, or if it will happen again.

‘It destroys their business’

Theft is a big problem for Walmart.

Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran estimated the company loses $3 billion each year to loss of inventory, according to reports from Reuters. That’s about 3 percent of its inventory, more than double the industry average, Bloomberg News reported.

Store policies could explain why Walmart experiences more crime than similar retailers, said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.

The cavernous layout of the huge warehouses often presents opportunities for theft. Shelves tower high above people, preventing the ability to witness suspicious behavior. Merchandise isn’t protected or properly maintained. And many stores aren’t doing enough to protect their parking lots.

“All of those practices … really explain why you get such a high call volume at Walmart,” Scott said.

But in reality, much of the decision making is based on economics, said Charles Fishman, who wrote The Wal-Mart Effect, a book about the company’s impact on communities.

With Walmart’s “low, low prices,” the profit margins are razor thin — about 3 percent, Fishman said. So when a person steals something that costs $3, they’re really stealing $100 in sales.

“That’s why Walmart freaks out over stuff that costs $2.99. They feel like they can’t let anyone get away with anything because it destroys their business. And if you look at the numbers, it’s true. … You don’t have to steal much to start really hitting the bottom line,” Fishman said. “But why is it the job of Columbia police to worry about $2.99 in theft inside a Walmart store?”

Retail security consultants say businesses have to draw the line on theft somewhere.

“If you allow that to happen, it becomes rampant. It goes unchecked,” said Jeff Zisner, CEO of AEGIS Security and Investigations, a California-based firm that specializes in retail security and loss prevention.

Major corporations already spend millions on security and loss prevention, he said. But if the goal is to reduce calls to police, the best — and likely cheapest — option is to hire off-duty officers, he said.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin doesn’t like the idea of forcing that onto a private business.

“I think you’re getting into dangerous territory to start pro-rating public safety,” Benjamin said. “We want to make sure our resources are going toward the most significant public safety threats. But obviously responding to shoplifting does not rise to that level.”

Benjamin applauded the police department’s move to encourage businesses to file reports of misdemeanor shoplifting online, saying that’s a good first step.

“I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to this,” he said, adding he is always willing to discuss ways to improve. “But it has to be in the interest of keeping people and their property safe, even if they are corporate citizens.”

Some Columbia City Council members don’t think it’s an issue.

Councilman Moe Baddourah said if the problem rose to such a level where off-duty officers were needed, Columba Police Chief Skip Holbrook would bring that to the attention of council. Until then, he can’t discriminate between businesses.

Councilman Sam Davis was apathetic, saying it’s up to Walmart. And if officers wanted to earn more money on the side, that’s fine, he said.

On the other hand, Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said he wants to bring the issue up at a city Public Safety Committee meeting.

“I think it warrants a discussion with our police chief and an outlook of some kind of plan,” he said. “That’s a tremendous amount of time spent (at Walmart). If these numbers are accurate, it creates a sense of concern.”

Police and security consultants say communities should ask themselves two questions: What level of police service should a person or business reasonably expect for their taxes, and what level of security is reasonable to expect someone to cover themselves?

Every person and business does a little of both. They pay the cost of keeping themselves and their property safe and secure, and pay taxes so the police have the resources to do what they can’t.

“Walmart has the ability to stop the problem,” Fishman said. “They’ve decided they can’t afford to.”

Cody Dulaney: 803-771-8313, @dulaneycd.
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