Crime & Courts

Is Wal-Mart a crime magnet in the Midlands? A look at the numbers

Camden's Wal-Mart has higher than average crime reports

Figures show 14% of Camden Police reports come from the store.
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Figures show 14% of Camden Police reports come from the store.

Police are a common sight at Wal-Marts across the Midlands. But for officers in a small town near Columbia, handling problems at the retail giant makes up about 14 percent of their total calls.

That town is Camden. Between the start of January and the end of June, 187 of the Camden Police Department’s 1,372 calls were to the Wal-Mart on West Dekalb Street. That means on average, police were called to the store at least once every day.

In contrast, during similar spans of time, calls at Wal-Marts in Irmo, West Columbia and Lexington made up about 1 to 3 percent of all calls, according to those municipalities’ police departments.

“The fact that they’re a 24-hour operation, especially in a small town, lends to being pretty much the only thing open that time of night,” Camden Police Chief Joe Floyd said. “That makes them more vulnerable sometimes because they’re dealing with smaller shifts” of store employees.

A teen was charged with shoplifting after a Wal-Mart employee told Camden police the boy took a pair of men’s earrings worth less than $5.

Wal-Mart has come under fire nationwide for attracting criminal activity and for monopolizing police departments’ time. Some have criticized the retail giant for not hiring enough of its own security officers, for depending too much on taxpayer dollars to solve problems, especially shoplifting issues.

An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, published in May, for example, looked at several Florida Wal-Marts and found that on average, law enforcement responded to two calls an hour among the stores in four counties.

Incidents at the Camden store range from drug charges to shoplifting. That latter category is what most folks might think of first when talking about crime at Wal-Mart.

Shoplifting incidents made up 106 of Camden police’s 187 calls to the store in the six months examined by The State newspaper. Thefts at the store range from items worth hefty sums of money to cheap trinkets.

On June 27, a man went into the store’s garden center at about 3 p.m. left with a riding lawn mower worth almost $1,600, according to an incident report.

On July 2, a teen was charged with shoplifting and turned over to his grandmother. The goods the boy was charged with taking? A set of men’s earrings worth less than $5, according to an incident report.

Floyd said that while the store takes up a lot of officers’ time, Wal-Mart does a lot to assist police.

Sometimes, loss prevention personnel who work for the store call the cops when they’ve got a shoplifter in custody. Other times, they bring the police footage of shoplifters who escaped, Floyd said.

Erica Jones, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., stressed that loss prevention employees are not security guards or police.

“It all boils down to if there’s someone committing a crime or illegal activity in our store, we will call law enforcement to address that because we are not law enforcement,” Jones said.

It’s not just Camden feeling the effect of crime at the retail giant, however. Irmo Police Chief Joe Nates said shoplifting at Wal-Mart has increased the police department’s call volume.

“They seem to catch a fair number of violators,” Nates said of the store’s loss prevention team.

And that’s at a location that’s not 24 hours – Irmo’s store on Dutch Fork Road is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

We are moving aggressively to address these issues.”

Erica Jones, Wal-Mart spokeswoman

Wal-Mart is aware of issues at its stores, Jones said. The company’s most recent solution? A program called “More at the Door.”

“We are moving aggressively to address these issues – most recently with expanding More at the Door, which bolsters a presence at the front of stores – and we will do more,” Jones said.

The company estimates this will create about 9,000 new positions, according to a Wal-Mart blog post. Employees will have responsibilities that include greeting customers, checking receipts and deterring shoplifters. Not all stores will get the More at the Door program. Camden is one that won’t, Jones said.

Midlands law enforcement leaders stopped short of saying Wal-Mart needs to hire more security to prevent crime at its stores. They stressed that their own officers and Wal-Mart’s loss prevention teams work together closely.

“Every business makes the determination on what their needs are and how much investment they wish to make in asset protection,” Lexington Police Chief Terrence Green said.

But one thing is clear from police paperwork – even when a boy is caught with a $5 pair of earrings, Wal-Mart employees will call the cops.

“We know that there’s a high level of enforcement effort at the Wal-Mart here,” Floyd said. “Their loss prevention team is extremely active.”

Calls to the Camden Wal-Mart

187 of 1,372, or 14 percent

Number of the city’s police calls that came from Wal-Mart, January through June of this year

Once a day, on average

The frequency with which officers visited the store

1 to 3 percent of all calls

Volume of Wal-Mart calls from stores in Irmo, West Columbia and Lexington

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

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