The Walmart Supercenter in Camden, S.C., is a 24/7 retail oasis and the only place many nearby residents can go for basic necessities. It’s also the most frequented stop for local police. In the first six months of 2016, 14% of the city’s law-enforcement reports originated there, most for shoplifting–a figure that would be even higher if Walmart called the cops for every trespass and minor theft, says police chief Joe Floyd.
This holds true across the U.S. In four Florida counties surrounding Tampa, police were called to local Walmarts 16,800 times in 2014, according to the Tampa Bay Times. In Louisville, Ky., WDRB reports that there have been more than 9,200 calls to local Walmarts since 2012, more than any other retail chain (or location) in the city. For some departments, the sheer number of low-level offenses reported to police–theft being the most common–has pulled officers away from investigating more serious incidents.
To ease that burden and reduce shoplifting losses, America’s largest retailer is starting to do police work. Earlier this summer, Walmart hired an additional 9,000 employees to guard its doors and check receipts. As part of a program called Restorative Justice, they will work alongside existing employees to manage some petty crimes internally. If an employee, for instance, catches a thief whose name is not in a searchable police database–that is, a first-time offender–that person will get a choice: pay to take an online course about the consequences of their actions, or face charges. The idea, says Walmart spokesman Brian Nick, is to rehabilitate lawbreakers without involving the police. Similar programs exist in schools and prisons.
But the efforts have raised concerns. For one, it’s unclear if the online courses are as helpful as they seem, given that one of the entities hired to administer them–Corrective Education Company (CEC)–is being sued for overcharging and even falsely imprisoning alleged shoplifters. (In a statement, CEC CEO Brian Ashton called the lawsuit “without merit”; Nick declined to comment.) And even with extra staff, Walmart’s sprawling stores will remain difficult to secure because of their size and accessibility, especially during late-night hours, when fewer employees are working. “It’s a major public area,” says Camden’s Floyd.
Still, there are signs that Restorative Justice could work. The Arlington police department in Texas, for example, says the program reduced police calls to local Walmart stores by 40.5% from last October through July. But something truly transformational will likely take years–and more police runs in the meantime.
This appears in the August 22, 2016 issue of TIME.
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