Tampa Bay Walmarts get thousands of police calls. You paid the bill.
Police come to shoo away panhandlers, referee parking disputes and check on foul-mouthed teenagers.
They are called to arrest the man who drinks a 98-cent iced tea without paying and capture the customer who joyrides on a motorized shopping cart.
The calls eat up hours of officers’ time. They all start at one place:
Law enforcement logged nearly 16,800 calls in one year to Walmarts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis. 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.”
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.
Walmart said it is doing what it must to thwart thieves and protect its merchandise. Spokesman Aaron Mullins said the company’s specialists do “a really great job of identifying people who are breaking the law” and they “partner very closely with local law enforcement.”
“Any type of criminal activity that might be happening in our stores we take very seriously,” he said, “and we have processes in place to address that aggressively.”
Thousands of calls, little security
Walmart’s approach to handling problems is more “tough love” than “let’s talk it out.” The style descends from founder Sam Walton, a scrappy, no-nonsense businessman who famously wrote in his autobiography that theft is “one of the biggest enemies of profitability.”
His company became the world’s largest retailer, far exceeding other big box chains. Everything about Walmart is enormous: about 11,000 stores in 28 countries, 140 million weekly customers in the United States alone, $15 billion in annual profits.
But Walmart squeezes those profits from razor thin margins. The theft of a $4 pair of socks can obliterate the return on the next $100 in sales. So the company, experts said, relies heavily on police to protect its bottom line, starting with shoplifting.
Of the 7,000 calls in Tampa Bay in 2014 for suspected thefts, many were for items totaling less than $300, the threshold for when petty theft becomes grand theft. The Times found calls for items worth much less — a $10 gas can, $3 eye drops, $2 chocolates.
Another 9,000 calls were for basic disorder, everything from dealing with the drunk man talking loudly at the deli to checking on juveniles suspected of skipping school. Officers also responded for 911 hang-ups, follow-up investigations, or simply to take down information and collect lost property.
Those calls — some made by Walmart employees, others by customers — included more than 1,000 for suspected trespassers, another 1,000 for suspicious people and cars, and another 1,000 for suspected panhandling, loitering, noise complaints and “disturbances.”
“Law enforcement becomes in effect a taxpayer-paid private security source for Walmart,” said New York-based leading retail analyst Burt Flickinger.
Why they show up
Tampa Bay's Walmarts attracted more than 16,000 calls in 2014Source: Times analysis
Perhaps more than any other big-box retailer, Walmart caters to low-income shoppers looking to buy everything from vegetables to televisions as cheaply as possible. Walmart sometimes opens stores in neighborhoods where the threat of crime is higher. Employees at many stores know that at least a few desperate, drug-addled or ill-intentioned customers will pass through their doors every day.
A lot of shoppers “are struggling,” said Michael Garafano, 23, a former maintenance worker, cashier and floor associate at two stores in Brandon. “So there’s just a lot of stress.”
That’s all the more reason for a for-profit company like Walmart to adequately secure its stores, experts said. One solution: Hire more uniformed security guards. Research shows that they effectively deter misbehaving customers and can cut down on theft. Malls, for instance, often employ guards to manage everyday nuisances like noise complaints and loitering teens. Some Publix stores have guards in brown uniforms near the door.
Private security guards perform “all of those policing functions to both prevent the low-level disorder and also to respond to it, only calling police if in their judgment it might turn violent,” said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.
Walmart makes plenty of money and attracts so many police calls “that it would be reasonable to expect them to hire their own private security,” said Scott, also a former Lauderhill police chief in Broward County.
Walmart would not say how many of its Tampa Bay stores have uniformed guards. Times reporters visited all of the area’s supercenters and regular-sized Walmarts and noticed only five had a security officer, all located at the entrance. A half-dozen had greeters near the door, an old Walmart staple whose job it is to say hello to the streams of people coming in and out. The company recently announced plans to add more greeters to stores nationwide. Starting in October, Walmart paid to have an off-duty police officer posted at one St. Petersburg store, on 34th Street N, for 12 hours a day.
Garafano did not remember seeing many uniformed guards at the two stores where he worked. He said more security would have helped.
“If you see a guy in a uniform or something,” he said, “you’re probably not going to steal anything or cause trouble because you'll think, this guy’s going to bust me.”
More uniformed guards are just one option. Research shows that firm, experienced managers or well-trained employees can easily deal with many small issues. They can scare off loiterers or banish drunk customers.
Walmart deals with high staff turnover, said Flickinger, the New York-based retail analyst, and it eliminated many management positions in recent years to offset wage increases.
“Walmart looks at everything as cost instead of investment,” he said.
‘Tremendous strain’ on police
The heavy load weighs on police in every Tampa Bay county.
The Times asked local law enforcement agencies for the three places their officers responded to most in 2014. The lists included parks and busy intersections, hospitals and mental health facilities. A few malls made it. So did a retirement community and a youth shelter. The lists hardly ever included large retailers such as Target, Publix and the Home Depot.
But Walmart dominated.
Pasco sheriff’s deputies, for instance, were called to two individual Walmarts more than to any other commercial location in their jurisdiction. Walmarts also ranked No. 1 and No. 2 for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office. In Largo, Walmart was first and third on the list.
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.
“It is a tremendous strain on manpower,” Sheriff’s Col. Greg Brown wrote in an email to the Times.
At Walmart more than anywhere elseSource: Times analysis
Some overworked agencies have demanded that Walmart make changes. The police chief in Beech Grove, Ind., once deemed the local Walmart a nuisance and threatened it with fines of up to $2,500 for every small shoplifting call. About three months later, calls had fallen by almost two-thirds.
“At what point do you say, this one individual is taking enough resources that it is interfering with other functions?” said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and former Tallahassee police officer. “There are other jobs that we could be doing, and we need to change the way that we respond.”
In Port Richey, population 2,700, the department’s handful of patrol officers fielded more than 450 calls in a year from the one Walmart in its jurisdiction, nearly three times as many as their next busiest commercial location, a WaWa gas station. Those calls led to about 200 arrests.
In August, a Walmart employee called the department after a 33-year-old man stole a $6.39 electric toothbrush. The officer arrived in three minutes, talked to a Walmart employee, arrested the man, and then made the 19-mile trip to the Land O’Lakes jail. After finishing the paperwork, the officer was free to take another call.
Total elapsed time: 2 ½ hours.
Port Richey Assistant Chief William Ferguson calculated that the arrests chewed up nearly 500 hours of officer time, at a department that sometimes has only two officers on patrol. That doesn’t include all the other calls that didn’t lead to arrests.
Port Richey police asked Walmart about hiring off-duty officers, but company officials never responded, he said. The city would be better served, Ferguson said, if police officers used all that time to drive through neighborhoods and head off other crimes.
“They can’t do that when they’re spending God knows how many hours at Walmart,” he said.
“It’s almost like we’re Walmart’s personal police transportation agency.”
Far above Target
Walmart’s aggressive approach, the Times found, leads it to demand far more from police than Target.
Reporters compared a year’s worth of calls at Walmarts and Targets within the same police jurisdictions or just a few miles apart. The 10 Walmarts had more than 5,100 calls compared with fewer than 1,100 at the 10 Targets.
In Pinellas Park, for instance, a supercenter on U.S. 19 competes with a Target less than a mile away.
Walmart calls — 712.
Target calls — 195.
In Clearwater, the Target on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard is bigger than the nearby Walmart.
Walmart calls — 392.
Target calls — 107.
The discrepancy was more stark on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard near the Hillsborough-Pasco county line.
Walmart calls — 531.
Target calls — 52.
Walmart vs Target
The Times reviewed 10 Walmarts and close-by Targets.
In every case, Walmart had more calls.
In most cases, the Walmart stores were larger than the Targets. The Times accounted for the size difference by calculating the number of calls for every 10,000 square feet of store space. Even then, the Walmarts averaged more than three times the calls, producing about 30 per 10,000 square feet compared with only about nine at Target.
Reporters also considered that Walmart stores are often open overnight, while Targets close at 11 p.m. or earlier. But the Times analysis found that most police calls came during the afternoon and evening hours when both Walmart and Target are open. Only about 11 percent came during the overnight hours.
Unlike Walmart, Target seems to have more uniformed employees strolling the aisles, which helps cut down on problems, said Flickinger, a retail consultant who has worked with many national chains. Walmart’s choice to stay open late and its success in attracting shoppers does not absolve it of the responsibility to reduce problems on its property, he added.
“Rather than store security and store management taking care of the problem, as many other retailers would take care of the security,” he said, “the call is made to (Tampa Bay) law enforcement.”
Target declined to comment on its security or its competition with Walmart.
In 2012, Target’s then-vice president for assets protection, Brad Brekke, said it was “no secret that retail theft — particularly low-level offending — consumes an enormous amount of public and private resources.”
“Here at Target, we are taking an active and engaged role in alleviating some of this burden on the criminal justice system,” he said.
Emily Gold LaGratta, who co-authored a 2012 Center for Court Innovation shoplifting study in conjunction with Target, would not comment on Target’s approach specifically, but said that “relatively small tweaks to (corporate) policies could have an impact on how many times police get called.” One option? A retailer might only call police for repeat offenders, or if the offender steals items that exceed a specified threshold, such as $50.
A decade ago, for instance, Walmart announced plans to stop calling authorities for some first-time shoplifters who stole items totaling less than $25. Walmart would not talk about whether it is still enforcing that policy today.
Wyatt Jefferies, a Walmart spokesman, spoke more openly about a diversion program the company adopted in select places about three years ago. Instead of calling police, the store gives first-time shoplifters the option of paying restitution and completing online courses. Eight Tampa Bay stores are enrolled, he said, and the retailer is assessing whether it will expand the program here and elsewhere.
“We’ve already seen significant impact from their ability to alleviate pressure on local law enforcement for low-risk offenders,” Jefferies said.
Walmart attracts more foot traffic than other retailers. More customers, Jefferies said, means more potential for crime, which results in more calls to police.
“It almost looks like Walmart is being penalized for following the law in a way,” he said.
Walking through ‘chaos’
On a Tuesday afternoon, Wesley Jennings stepped into a Tampa Walmart with a Times reporter and immediately began describing how the retailer creates an environment that encourages problems.
The store was loud and frenetic, the fluorescent lights extra bright. He saw racks overflowing with clothes, a shelf crammed with printer cartridges, boxes scattered in the middle of an aisle.
“There’s just very limited open space,” said Jennings, a University of South Florida professor with degrees in criminology and psychology, “and then there’s literally tons of products.”
Near the electronics department, tall cardboard displays blocked sightlines, creating pockets where an opportunist could feel alone, unseen, safe to steal. He peered up at the ceiling-mounted video cameras. Shoplifters notice those, he said, but often think they aren’t working or can’t zoom in close enough to record them shoving items into their pockets.
Jennings saw fewer than a dozen uniformed employees walking inside the 212,000-square-foot building. Nowhere did he see uniformed security.
Stores are like neighborhoods, he said. If they look tidy, research shows, they signal that the residents are paying attention. Walmarts can feel messy and disheveled. The “chaos,” Jennings said, allows troublemakers to rationalize that the company doesn’t care. It also sends the message that they might get away with it.
Last August, a teenager at a supercenter in Hudson pocketed an $18 audio cable. A specially trained Walmart employee who works undercover to catch thieves spotted him. When loss prevention associates see a shoplifter, they dart between aisles, shadowing their targets and relaying movements into radios or cell phones before surrounding suspects at the door.
A loss prevention associate walked the teenager to a narrow office and called the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. Two deputies spent more than 50 minutes working on the call.
The boy cussed and hung his head. He had more than a hundred dollars in his pocket. He said he hadn’t planned to steal anything when he walked into the store.
“I could have paid for ... nine of them,” he said.
A body camera captured Deputy Jason Logue reflecting on Walmart’s surveillance system and the volume of calls at the supercenter.
“Unfortunately, it just seems to be a big revolving door,” said Logue, before leading the teenager to a patrol car. “We do all this work, and then I feel like a month later I’m dealing with the same guy all over again.”
A taxpayer problem
Walmart pays taxes — a lot of taxes — and like any taxpayer is entitled to government services including help from police. The company is a “commercial citizen,” noted Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, that “doesn’t deserve to get ripped off by people.”
But other companies, including some of Walmart’s competitors, pay a lot of taxes, too, and they don’t have nearly the same impact on police.
In east Hillsborough, for instance, a Walmart paid close to the same amount in property taxes as a nearby Target. But the Walmart also had more than four times as many police calls, the Times found.
In Clearwater, a Walmart on U.S. 19 paid less in property taxes than a nearby Target. Yet police wound up at the Walmart more than three times as often.
In Plant City, the Walmart on James L. Redman Parkway was the eighth biggest taxpayer, just ahead of a nearby shopping plaza with a Publix, Bealls, CVS and several restaurants. Still, the Walmart alone had nearly three times more calls than the entire plaza.
The Walmart, in fact, had more police calls than the shopping plaza plus the city’s seven other biggest taxpayers combined.
“We always have to plan for a busy day at Walmart,” said Plant City police Sgt. Alfred Van Duyne.
The Times also compared Walmart’s share of police calls to its share of all the property taxes paid in four cities. To do this, reporters focused only on calls to properties that paid taxes, and eliminated calls involving places like parks, intersections and most churches. The result? Walmart’s slice of calls was consistently larger than its slice of tax payments. Much larger.
Take the Broad Street supercenter in Brooksville. Walmart’s portion of police calls was twice as big as its portion of real estate taxes paid.
The gap was even wider at supercenters in Plant City, Port Richey and St. Petersburg.
When the Times asked about the volume of calls, Jefferies noted in an email that Walmart paid nearly $15 million in annual property taxes across Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. He also offered that the company contributed millions of dollars to charities across Florida. In Tampa Bay, Walmart has donated to shelters and toy drives and sponsored community events.
“Walmart is a proud member of the Tampa Bay community,” Jefferies wrote. “We’ve created job opportunities … and strengthened communities, including police and fire departments, throughout the state of Florida.”
Waiting for more calls
Responding to Walmart has become so routine that officers show up without even being called. They drive slowly through the parking lot or stop to write unrelated reports. Other times they go inside and walk the aisles, or just buy a soda.
For patrol officers, these unsolicited visits to Walmarts are an easy decision, said Scott, the former Lauderhill police chief.
“Look, I either get called there later, or I go there now and prevent things,” he said.
The Times found more than 6,200 of these visits, on top of the other 16,800 calls.
Garafano, the former Walmart employee in Brandon, said he sometimes saw sheriff's patrol cars parked near the supercenter on East Brandon Boulevard, even when nothing was happening.
“It was almost like they were kind of just waiting to get a call,” he said.
Assistant Chief Ferguson, who worked for Tampa police from 1989 until 2014 before moving to Port Richey, remembers shift supervisors conducting daily roll call in the parking lot of a Walmart on Dale Mabry Highway. A dozen cruisers would pull in, and a jail transport van was often parked outside, too, he said. Officers hoped the show of force would stop troublemakers before they even walked inside the store.
Targets did not receive so much unsolicited attention, the Times found.
Police, for instance, conducted nearly 2,400 of what are often called “directed patrols” at six Walmarts compared with about 1,150 at six nearby Targets. Not all agencies performed directed patrols — or recorded them — in the same way, so the Times limited the comparison to stores within the same jurisdictions. In Clearwater, for instance, police logged 273 directed patrols at a Walmart compared with 76 at a larger Target fewer than three miles away.
The directed patrols, Scott said, in some ways reward bad behavior: Walmart creates so much work for police that they feel obligated to give the retailer even more attention, free of charge. That further cuts into the time officers can spend at other places, he said.
“Obviously all of those other businesses are not getting that officer’s attention,” he said. “All of the residential areas around (the store) are not getting it.”
With no fix, the problems continue
As long as calls keep coming, police will keep showing up. It’s their job to respond.
“We’re going to service them, whether it’s twice a day or 200 times a day,” said Van Duyne, the Plant City police sergeant.
To cut down on at least some of those calls, a few Tampa Bay agencies are experimenting with stationing cruisers and portable cameras in parking lots. Others, including the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office and Zephyrhills police, have reached out to Walmart to discuss solutions.
Police can make small fixes. But Ronald Clarke, a Rutgers University criminal justice professor, said the onus is on Walmart to change its policies.
“The public sector is sort of just a victim of this particular problem,” said Clarke, who wrote a Department of Justice guide on shoplifting prevention. “There's nothing much they can do. The people that can do anything about it are the private agencies that are selling the goods. That's really the truth.”
For now, the calls continue to pour in.
The Times checked four area supercenters — one each in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando — and found that total calls remained steady from 2014 to 2015.
At the Zephyrhills Walmart, retail theft arrests nearly doubled in the first six months of 2015. Capt. Derek Brewer said a Walmart manager attributed the increase to better trained loss prevention associates stopping more people.
In Clearwater last May, two Walmart associates spotted a man in a green shirt take a 98-cent bottle of sweet tea from a cooler, drink most of it and set it down in the candy department. A loss prevention specialist stopped him at the exit.
A police officer worked two hours on the case, including filling out paperwork for a petty theft charge. Before posting bail, the man spent 10 days in jail, a cost of about $1,230 to taxpayers.
The officer asked the man what happened.
“I was thirsty,” he said.
Times news researchers John Martin, Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or follow @zacksampson, Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or follow @lauracmorel, and Eli Murray at [email protected] or follow @Eli_Mur.
About the data
For this project, Tampa Bay Times reporters requested police calls from the 15 law enforcement agencies that patrolled at least one Walmart in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco or Hernando counties in 2014.
Authorities provided the Times with records of 29,669 calls. The Times excluded 6,100 calls such as emergency medical situations, calls to assist other agencies, warrant checks and probation violations. They also eliminated duplicate calls, including in Tampa, where police sometimes logged one incident twice under different two-letter codes. This process meant erring on the side of undercounting police calls to Walmarts.
Sometimes authorities attributed calls to Walmart that did not take place on store property, including many traffic crashes and violations that occurred on the streets near a Walmart. The reporters could eliminate most of those calls, though it’s possible some made it into the final count.
The Times also separated out roughly 6,200 calls commonly known as directed patrols or business checks. They are calls self-initiated by the officers, not by a complaint from someone at a store.
After stripping excluded calls and directed patrols, the Times found that local authorities responded to Walmarts in Tampa Bay nearly 16,800 times in one year.
Reporters also asked each police agency for a list of the locations where their officers or deputies received the most calls. Most of the agencies provided the Times with their own filtered lists. The Times reporters then excluded calls logged to police headquarters, jails or courthouses. Brooksville, St. Petersburg, and Plant City provided spreadsheets of every call for service in 2014, from which reporters determined the busiest locations. The reporters filtered the data for those three agencies to exclude off-duty calls and directed patrols.
For the tax comparisons, reporters requested the total amount of property taxes paid within St. Petersburg, Brooksville, Port Richey and Plant City. They then calculated a percentage for how much Walmart contributed to each city. For most cities, the Times only looked at real estate taxes, excluding tangible taxes. The Brooksville property tax comparison includes tangible taxes because the tax collector’s office could not provide a breakdown. Reporters did not look at state sales tax records because they are exempt from public record, and because sales tax is ultimately paid by the customer, not the store.
The arrest data includes both physical arrests, where a suspect was taken to jail, and notices to appear, citations that order a suspect to show up in court at a later date.
The Times, throughout its reporting, consulted with more than 55 law enforcement leaders and experts on retail crime. Reporters contacted Walmart three times, once with a summary of their findings.
About the reporters
ZACHARY T. SAMPSON covers crime and breaking news in St. Petersburg. He joined the Times in September 2014. Raised in Rhode Island, he graduated from Northeastern University, where he studied journalism and sociology.
LAURA C. MOREL covers law enforcement and courts in Pinellas County. She joined the Times in May 2012. Born and raised in Miami, she speaks Spanish and holds degrees from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston.
ELI MURRAY is a data reporter and news applications developer. He joined the Times in 2015 and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign with a degree in journalism. He grew up in Illinois.
Editor: Graham Brink
Video production: Tracee Stockwell
Photography: Jim Damaske, Doug Clifford and Boyzell Hosey
Online design: Martin Frobisher
Research: John Martin, Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds