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Wal-Mart's Crime Problem Overwhelms Police Across U.S.


There are so many crimes committed at a certain Wal-Mart in Tulsa, Okla., that the city police department regularly sends over a van to pick up all of the suspects arrested at the store. At Wal-Mart properties across the country this year, it's estimated there will be hundreds of thousands of crimes, mostly shoplifting, but also kidnappings and shootings.

This is what Shannon Pettypiece has found after studying police reports from dozens of stores and talking with police who were fed up with the number of calls they get from Wal-Marts. She and David Voreacos have written about this for Bloomberg Businessweek, and Shannon joins us now from our bureau in New York. Hi.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE: Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: You spent some time with an officer named Darrell Ross, whose nickname at the Tulsa PD is Officer Wal-Mart.

PETTYPIECE: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: Explain where he spends most of his workday and what a typical day is like for him.

PETTYPIECE: A typical day can mean he spends the vast majority of his 10-hour shift at one Wal-Mart store. Sometimes the police get called there three, four, five times a day. It's enough to keep two officers busy for an entire shift some days.

SIEGEL: And would you say that Tulsa is typical, atypical? Is this happening all over the country at Wal-Mart?

PETTYPIECE: It does appear to be happening. I talked to police departments in Denver, Austin, Springfield, Mo., in small towns like Port Richey, Fla., little towns in Maine. Every major city seems to have some type of Wal-Mart problem.

SIEGEL: Why? Why is this happening now?

PETTYPIECE: Part of it is just the very nature of Wal-Mart. It's big. It's everywhere. It has millions of customers go in there every day. But another element of it is decisions that the company has made to cut costs over the past decade or more.

They've trimmed the number of employees they have in their stores. They've taken more of a reactive rather than a preventative approach to shoplifting and stopping crime. And to criminals, that all sends a message. No one's watching. No one cares, and no one's likely to catch you. And it's sort of become, like, the wild, wild West for criminals in their stores.

SIEGEL: For your article in Bloomberg Businessweek, you did a comparison between Wal-Marts and Target stores in Tulsa. And there's a real difference you found.

PETTYPIECE: The Targets get a fraction. In Tulsa, the four Wal-Mart stores last year got just under 2,000 calls. Target - their four stores got 300 calls. And it's difficult to explain that. I mean I talked to some shoplifters while I was there. They only steal from Wal-Mart.

I remember asking one young woman, well, why'd you steal from Wal-Mart? Why not the mall? Why not Target? It was like it never crossed her mind to steal from anywhere other than Wal-Mart. She just felt like it was easy to get away with there.

SIEGEL: Now, as for police frustration, I wasn't quite sure what to make of this when I read your article. I understand police departments would like Wal-Mart to do more to prevent theft in their stores. On the other hand, it isn't just business's responsibility to arrest people. That's what the police do.

PETTYPIECE: Yeah, absolutely, and Wal-Mart's not law enforcement. The police just feel like, yes, they know there's going to be crime at Wal-Mart. They know it's their responsibilities but that there's steps Wal-Mart could take that would really ease the load for them.

SIEGEL: What does Wal-Mart say about that? Do they claim they're doing anything to try to fix the problem?

PETTYPIECE: Wal-Mart says they're trying to do things like put more employees at the door. They've been trying to invest in theft prevention technology, devices they can put on merchandise or more, you know, visible security monitors. The police complaint is that they're not moving fast enough, and they're not moving far enough.

And I talked to one retail analyst who thinks Wal-Mart needs to add an extra quarter million part-time employees in its stores to really have the employee presence out on the floor that would deter theft. And for Wal-Mart, that's going to cost them billions of dollars to fix this problem like some people would like to see.

SIEGEL: That's Shannon Pettypiece. Her story in Bloomberg Businessweek is titled "Wal-Mart's Out Of Control Crime Problem Is Driving Police Crazy." Shannon, thanks.

PETTYPIECE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And we also asked Wal-Mart about the report, and we received this statement. (Reading) In the coming weeks and months, we will continue our increased outreach to law enforcement across the country as part of our ongoing commitment to meet our customers' and associates' expectations of a safe and enjoyable shopping experience. The importance of this issue is recognized at the highest levels of the company, and we are investing in people and technology to support our stores. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.