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Shoplifting at Walmart presents challenge for Salisbury police

The calls may be relatively routine, but the time dedicated to responding to the incidents builds up.

On Feb. 20, Salisbury Police officer A.E. Petty responded to a call at 323 South Arlington St.

Four teenagers were accused of stealing food and merchandise valued at $304.17 in the incident.

One day later, officer P.J. Smith responded to a call where a massage gun, clothes, food, pillow and air freshener spray were stolen. Police charged a 55-year-old woman with stealing the items, which had a total value of $243.48.

The Arlington Street address shows up almost everyday in crime reports, with five appearances last week. In fact, Walmart, located at 323 South Arlington St., comprises 15% of the city’s part one crime, which includes offenses ranging from homicide to stealing motor vehicle parts. Another category, part two, includes offenses such as forgery, counterfeiting and weapons violations.

Inside the Salisbury Police Department, the amount of crime at Walmart prompted internal discussions recently about how officers and the store can reduce the workload while maintaining the store’s policies aimed at reducing theft. Data provided by the Salisbury Police Department show there were 1,447 part one crimes reported in the city limits in 2020. Of those, 222 occurred at Salisbury’s Walmart. An overwhelming number of those have been shoplifting offenses.

Time required by an officer varies. Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes says each incident’s response might range from 30 to 60 minutes depending on particular details.

Stokes said management at the Salisbury store is willing and interested in looking at ideas that will help. Still, he says, the amount of time officers spend at Walmart handling relatively minor offenses takes away from the department’s ability to concentrate on more serious, violent crime.

The city’s policing model directs officers to spend time in areas where there are concentrated problems and supervisors use data to direct officers to patrol in cars, do foot patrols and other “presence-type” activities to reduce the opportunity for crime to occur.

“Having to direct those resources to Walmart reduces that available time for those more concerning issues we want officers to work toward preventing,” he said.

Stokes said an officer’s response usually requires the person to gather information from Walmart employees or security; identify the suspect, “who is usually in custody of Walmart security”; determine the crime committed; and whether it is a simple larceny shoplifting or a felony because of what was stolen. A simple larceny can be resolved with only a citation.

Walmart has the authority to detain someone for shoplifting, but employees do not have the ability to conduct a number of other tasks, which almost always requires an officer response. Walmart’s authority doesn’t include the ability to transport someone to the Rowan County Magistrate’s Office, verify identities and examine criminal history, which could lead to a different violation of the law, Stokes said.

The breakdown of part one crimes reported at Walmart in 2020 is as follows:

• Two robberies

• One aggravated assault

• One motor vehicle theft

• 200 shoplifting calls

• One theft from building

• Four thefts from motor vehicles

• Three thefts of motor vehicle parts

• Nine incidents classified as other larcenies

For its part, Walmart touts enforcement measures taken to deter people from committing crime in the first place and says it’s a taxpayer like any other business in town. The 24.5 acres on which the Salisbury Walmart’s store sits has a total tax value of $13.15 million. The total value of real property in the city limits, which excludes cars or other items that can be moved, is about $2.5 billion.

“We do pay a significant amount of tax in every community that we serve through taxes and other in-kind donations,” said Casey Staheli, Walmart senior manager for national media relations. “As a business and a member of the community, we’re entitled to the same protection as any other business.”

Staheli said efforts aimed at stopping crime before it occurs include motorized gates near the store entrance that do not open for customers trying to exit. Customers must go through a checkout area, he said.

There are also closed-circuit TV cameras and monitors in aisle in plain view, visible and covert employees who are asset protection associates and an increased number of staffers placed at entrances and exits as a deterrent for theft. In addition to greeting customers, employees at the entrance check receipts, assist with returns and receive shoplifting-specific training.

“We recognize the importance of this issue at the highest levels of the company, which is why we’ve invested more money and resources than anyone else in the industry,” Staheli said. “While no retailer is immune to the challenge of crime, over the last six years, Walmart has invested over half a billion dollars in an effort to not only reduce and detect it, but to deter it in our stores and parking lots.”

Staheli also touted signage aimed at deterring theft, work with the Loss Prevention Research Council and increased training, including de-escalation.

F. Wayne Laney, Jr., a criminal justice faculty member at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and former law enforcement officer, said criminals “choose the path of least resistance,” which means they’re more likely to steal from a location where there are no barriers — physical or otherwise. He said Walmart typically provides “a nice packet” of information to law enforcement, including good-quality video.

Other factors Laney mentioned as contributing to the amount of crime: the stores often end up in areas that are economically depressed and large portions of the community shop there. High poverty and unemployment rates are “catalysts for crime,” Laney said. The expansive parking lot also presents a challenge for security, even with Walmart hiring roving security and placing cameras there.

But Salisbury’s situation is not unique.

“Walmart presents challenges in just about every community and generally are responsible for more than the average percentage of police workload,” Stokes said. “They are also a great community partner who provide grants to police agencies and do other community events or outreach. If we didn’t have Walmart, we might have a significant food desert for some in our community who don’t have the means to travel for groceries. There are pluses and minuses.”

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