Analysis: Police called disproportionately to Walmart stores
By Mike Longaecker and Michelle Wirth
In the years leading up to 2014, police calls for service to retailers in Cottage Grove mainly came from two stores — Target and Kohl’s.
Walmart threw open its doors in March of that year, immediately becoming the top source of calls for service in the east metro suburb, claiming a lead that has remained firm since it opened.
“It’s become its own little city,” said Cottage Grove Public Safety Director Craig Woolery.
The statistics in Cottage Grove follow a similar trendline in other St. Croix and Mississippi River valley communities, where the retail giant serves customers and draws an often daily response from law enforcement.
When compared to Target — the next-largest big-box discount retailer in those same communities — there is a disproportionate response to Walmart stores.
According to a RiverTown Multimedia analysis of 2016 data from five cities with both stores, Walmart saw an average of 3.69 calls for service to every call at Target.
“If you have Walmart in your community, it is going to be your busiest retail grief as far as theft than any other business,” said Hastings Police Chief Bryan Schafer.
He would know. In 2016, the Hastings Walmart saw 646 calls for service compared to 109 calls of service to the Hastings Target.
The reasons for the disparity are many and often elusive, but in almost all cases, the draw on law enforcement resources is one that resounds with public safety leaders in those communities.
“Walmart is a magnet all over the country,” Schafer said.
The company responded to a previous RiverTown inquiry on Wednesday, July 27, saying no retailer is immune to crime.
“We recognize the importance of this issue at the highest levels of the company, and we are investing in people and technology to support our stores through programs like More at the Door, Restorative Justice and 3rd party security as necessary,” a Walmart spokesman said.
The high volume of calls for service to Walmart has definitely put a strain on the Police Department, Schafer said. It takes time and resources to respond to every call.
Regardless of what the officer is called for, it takes time to get to Walmart and decide if some sort of action needs to take place. Then it takes time to file a report, write a citation or make an arrest depending on the situation.
In addition, geographically, any call for service to Walmart or Target pulls police resources to the far side of town in Hastings — both stores are sited near the city’s western edge — leaving the core of the city where there might be other issues.
Keep reading for analysis of Woodbury stores
Ask any police chief at a law enforcement conference and they will share the same sentiment about their community, Schafer said.
Compared to other big-box retailers in Cottage Grove, Walmart “does create a strain,” Woolery said.
“But we staff for it,” he added.
To Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague, the issue is more complicated than it might appear on the surface.
Yes, Walmart requires a high call volume in his city. But to Vague, that’s a sign that staff at the Woodbury store are looking out for the community.
“We want that,” he said.
As for the corporate level, “I think Walmart still has some work to do,” he said, citing the company’s process for expediting cases for law enforcement.
Conventional logic seems to suggest crime at Walmarts would primarily be shoplifting and thefts. Data shows that while theft is a leading call for service at some stores, it’s hardly the only reason law enforcement responds there.
While shoplifting and theft calls topped the list at the Hastings, Woodbury and Red Wing Walmarts, a mix of other calls for service led the list elsewhere.
Traffic-related incidents were the leading call for service in Cottage Grove, responsible for 48 of the 300 calls to Walmart there in 2016. Theft-related calls were a close second there, generating 47 calls for service.
Thefts were the fifth-leading call for service at the Hudson Walmart, with public assist calls, follow-ups, suspicious activity and traffic stops all generating more calls for service last year.
According to the data, Walmart thefts — combined with shoplifting calls — represented 39 percent of all calls in Woodbury; about 16 percent in Cottage Grove; about 8 percent in Hudson; 27 percent in Red Wing; and 31 percent in Hastings.
“It’s the gamut,” Woolery said.
Calls for service at Target stores, meanwhile, paint a different picture.
In Woodbury, where there’s a Target store on the city’s west side and a SuperTarget on the east side, 911 hang-ups (32) and public assist issues (29) topped the list. Woodbury police responded to 19 theft-related calls to both Target stores in 2016 in a year when the Woodbury Walmart produced 164 such calls.
BY THE NUMBERS: Police calls to Walmart and Target
According to the Target data, theft-related incidents represented less than 10 percent of calls in Cottage Grove; about 11 percent in Hudson; 31 percent in Red Wing; and 4 percent in Hastings.
Data going back nearly a decade shows the disparity between Walmart and Target holds true in Woodbury. According to law enforcement data, Woodbury had a total of 1,290 calls for service to retail locations between 2008 and 2012; 700 of those calls were to Walmart.
Walmart clearly outpaces Target in calls for service in the region, but that trend holds up nationally, too, according to a security expert.
John Roberts, president of JR Roberts Security Strategies in North Carolina, said other discount retailers “all seem to have significantly less” crime than Walmart. Roberts, who testifies around the country on security-related matters including Walmart stores, said a multitude of factors make Walmart a frequent crime magnet.
Walmart often draws customers from “impoverished” backgrounds, Roberts said, making them more likely to be victimized in crimes that occur in the store’s parking lots, for example.
While law enforcement officials struggle to identify the reason behind Walmart’s apparent allure for criminals, most point to socioeconomic factors at play.
Francis Shen, a professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Minnesota, said that in general there is a link between socioeconomic status and crime rates. A possible explanation for the high call volume at Walmart might have to do with the difference in clientele between Target and Walmart.
“It’s speculation,” Shen said, “but to the extent that Target is catering to customers in a higher education and socioeconomic bracket.”
While the link between socioeconomic status and crime rates could have a part in the Walmart and Target comparison, there are also other factors. Shen said the size of the store, customer traffic, corporate policy and accessibility could all play a role.
Four of the five of the Walmarts in the RiverTown Multimedia analysis are open 24 hours a day, whereas the Target retail stores are closed at least between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Still, the volume of calls from Walmart based on Target’s hours is still significantly higher.
In Woodbury — where Walmart closes daily at 11 p.m. — the store still drew twice as many calls for service last year as both of Woodbury’s Target stores combined.
How often police respond to any given retailer is heavily dependent upon the reports officers get from security. Woodbury police lauded security at the local Walmart, though the police chief said that seems to create a paradoxical scenario.
“It would seem to me that it wouldn’t be a good place to shoplift because they have a really engaged security staff,” Vague said.
The company said that while there’s room for improvement, current security efforts are satisfactory.
“We are pleased with the asset protection program in place and are always looking for ways to get better,” a Walmart spokesman said.
He pointed to the company’s “More at the Door” program, in place in about one-third of the nation’s Walmart Supercenters, where so-called “customer hosts” are stationed near entrances. Those yellow vest-clad workers — about 9,000 of whom have been added to the stores in recent months — may check receipts and are trained to help deter shoplifting.
Schafer said that in Hastings, a night call to Walmart is sometimes a crime of opportunity.
“There’s some push-outs in the middle of the night, people come out there and they push a whole cart of stuff out,” Schafer said.
The reason being that there is typically a small number of staffers on the night shift, yet all the store entrances remain open. Hastings Fire Marshal John Townsend did not speak to Walmart specifically, but in general building fire codes say that entrances and exits should be unlocked and operational during business hours.
“The exiting doors should operate in the manner that the building was designed,” he said.
Cottage Grove police officer Jordan Ziebarth likes to focus his patrol on that city’s retail sector, which means spending a fair amount of time in the Walmart parking lot. It’s hardly the only store he checks on, but it’s one that experience has taught him is rife with criminal activity.
“It’s kind of a weird phenomenon,” Ziebarth said.
He knows he can drive the Walmart lot and is more likely to find a stolen vehicle there than at Target, Menards or other nearby retailers. He said the sheer volume of shoppers at Walmart is a logical reason why the store sees more calls for service. However, he said thieves can take advantage of that shopper volume by using it as a shield for shoplifting.
Woodbury’s Walmart received 423 calls for service in 2016. The Target on Valley Creek Road had 130 calls for service in the same period, while Woodbury’s SuperTarget saw 85 such calls.
The Woodbury Walmart parking lot has a sign that’s unique; it prohibits overnight parking — a contrast to other lots owned by Walmart, which allows travelers at many of its locations to park their RVs overnight. Vague, Woodbury’s public safety director, said the city created the ordinance as part of the planning process with Walmart before the company opened the Supercenter store.
Adam Sack, a patrol officer for Woodbury, trains his focus on retail crime in the city when he’s able. He said he doesn’t see retail crime at Walmart or any other outlet in the city as a burden to law enforcement.
“We can walk away from it,” he said.
Sack said officers break away from parking lot surveillance anytime they’re need to respond to a victim-related incident or a medical call. They can always come back to retail crimes, he said, and work backward by reviewing store surveillance footage.
“In my downtime, I can take down career, multi-jurisdictional criminals,” Sack said.
Vague, Woodbury’s police chief, said he likes that officers like Sack work to foster strong relationships with security staff at Walmart and other stores in the retail-heavy city. That, Vague said, is preferable over retailers so risk-averse that they don’t call police because they’re wary of litigation foot traps.
“I’d like to see more stores be effective like our local Walmart,” he said.