When we talk about retailers like Wal-Mart shifting billions in operating costs to government, they usually do so with low wages, forcing employees on to SNAP benefits, which they then use to buy food at Wal-Mart. But there are plenty of other ways Wal-Mart shifts costs to taxpayers, and one of them is using local police as store security rather than pay for it themselves, as this week's Sunday Long Read from the Tampa Bay Times finds.
Law enforcement logged nearly 16,800 calls in one year to Walmarts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, according to a Tampa Bay Timesanalysis. That’s two calls an hour, every hour, every day.
Local Walmarts, on average, generated four times as many calls as nearby Targets, the Times found. Many individual supercenters attracted more calls than the much larger WestShore Plaza mall.
When it comes to calling the cops, Walmart is such an outlier compared with its competitors that experts criticized the corporate giant for shifting too much of its security burden onto taxpayers. Several local law enforcement officers also emphasized that all the hours spent at Walmart cut into how often they can patrol other neighborhoods and prevent 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.”
Even cops admit that Wal-Mart is tying up their officers and preventing them from doing other things, and responding to other calls. And they can get away with it because they're Wal-Mart.
The Times reviewed thousands of records and interviewed dozens of officers and experts to provide an unprecedented look at the impact 53 Walmarts had on local policing.
Among the findings:
- Sheriff’s deputies in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties were called to individual Walmart stores more than to any other location — by far. The same went for police in Largo, Pinellas Park, Tarpon Springs, Dade City, Plant City, Brooksville and Port Richey. For authorities in Pinellas and St. Petersburg, Walmarts were the second busiest locations.
- Officers logged fewer than 500 calls for violence, drugs or weapons. They took roughly another 7,000 calls for potential thefts. An even bigger category was general disorder, everything from suspected trespassing to parking violations, lost property and people sleeping outside stores. Those roughly 9,000 calls consumed hundreds of hours of officers’ time, but resulted in just a few hundred arrests.
- Many businesses paid a lot more in property taxes than the local Walmart but were much less of a burden on police. The Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, for instance, paid nearly four times as much in taxes as three nearby supercenters combined. Still, the mall attracted fewer police calls.
- Officers know Walmart is such a regular trouble spot that they routinely show up without being called.
- They simply 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.
Walmart stores, with heavy foot traffic and cavernous layouts, are natural targets for shoplifters, panhandlers and other opportunists. Many are located in disadvantaged areas prone to more trouble. The retailer knows all of that, experts said, but doesn’t do enough to address the problems, despite ample resources. Walmart, they said, lays out its stores in a way that invites trouble and often doesn’t have enough uniformed employees to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Companies should do as much as they can to keep their properties in order before leaning on police, said Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect, a book about the retailer’s growth and social impact. He equated Walmart’s high volume of calls to the parents of a misbehaving 11-year-old who call 911 every time their child acts out.
“That’s not what police are for,” he said.
Oh, but that's what Wal-Mart thinks they are for. And they certainly have more pull in Florida than taxpayers. When you refuse to secur your own stores to cut costs and make local governments handle the duties, well that's the price of a Wal-Mart in your hometown, folks.