'Justice' in store: Lawmaker pushes back against Walmart program

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Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories about local law enforcement agencies’ response to retail crime.

Not everyone stopped for a crime at the nation's largest retailer enters the criminal justice system.

First-time nonviolent shoplifters at Walmart can be eligible for a program the company said is making a difference at its stores, though the program itself is taking heat from a Minnesota lawmaker.

The restorative justice program at Walmart is among efforts the company has rolled out since 2014 in the face of criticism about crime at its stores. A RiverTown Multimedia analysis of 2016 calls for service to Walmart stores in five cities revealed law enforcement is called an average of 3.69 times for every call to Target stores.

PREVIOUSLY: Police called disproportionately to Walmart stores

Heavy law enforcement response to the Hastings Walmart — data revealed police took 646 calls for service there in 2016 — coincided with the launch of a restorative justice program there aimed at curbing repeat offenders.

Walmart says the program, which allows low-risk offenders the opportunity to participate in an educational course instead of prosecution, can result in a decrease in the number of calls to law enforcement agencies. In fact, the company says the program is in more than 2,000 United States stores and has seen a 35 percent decrease in calls for service nationwide.

Walmart national media relations director Ragan Dickens said in addition to Hastings, the restorative justice program includes "some of the stores" in the Twin Cities region. He wouldn't confirm whether other communities that were the focus of the RiverTown analysis — Hudson, Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Red Wing — were among them.

The restorative justice program works with two providers: The Corrective Education Co. and Turning Point Justice, which is partnered with the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.

The Hastings Walmart began using the Crime Accountability Partnership program, a TPJ and NASP collaboration, in December 2016 with a goal of reducing the time and cost associated with low-level retail theft offenses.

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A spokeswoman said the program seeks to benefit all parties involved, including the retailers, law enforcement and prosecutors, the community and the offenders.

"All the people who are involved in this ... everybody has to contribute effort and reap the benefits in equal measure," said Barbara Staib, director of communication for NASP and CAP.

Participation in the program is voluntary. The offender must enroll in the program and make payment within 72 hours of the incident. Staib said the average cost for enrollment, technology and education of the program is between $400 and $425.

"Part of taking responsibility for your actions is paying the cost for your own rehabilitation," Staib said.

Not everyone's sold on the program, however.

Minnesota Rep. John Lesch called the program an "off the books probation department" that he fears denies due process to suspects apprehended by store security.

Though the program is voluntary, the St. Paul Democrat said that's not always clear to suspects who think they're dealing with a government entity, rather than a business-driven program.

"Walmart is treading very closely, if not wading directly into, the role of a government prosecutorial entity," he said, "and I have huge issues with that."

Lesch, a candidate for Minnesota attorney general, also registered concerns with the fees charged in the program, calling it "a profit center" to fund Walmart's security.

Dickens said the company would not comment on Lesch's allegations.

BY THE NUMBERS: Police calls to Walmart and Target

Lesch, perturbed over a disparity in law enforcement calls to Walmart stores in St. Paul, introduced legislation this year allowing for local units of government to assess costs from large retailers for "excessive consumption of law enforcement services."

He said Republican leadership didn't give the bill a committee hearing, so he's hoping to advance legislation next year about Walmart's restorative justice program. The Legislature has addressed municipal-level diversion programs, he said, arguing Walmart's program should also be accountable to lawmakers.

"This needs to be looked at in the same way when the cities took that action," he said.

Efforts to reach Rep. Tony Cornish, the Garden City Republican who chairs the House Public Safety and Security Police and Finance Committee, were not successful.

Strict criteria

The CAP program recognizes that people sometimes make mistakes and poor choices. First-time offenders get a second chance and through the education component they can ask themselves why they decided to shoplift if they knew it was wrong.

The program takes about four hours to complete and is available online or by mail. There are quizzes involved and offenders must reach a certain level to demonstrate that they have retained the information provided to them.

The offenders who qualify to use the CAP program in lieu of being entered into the criminal justice system are first-time offenders who committed a theft at the misdemeanor level. It depends on the community, but Staib said misdemeanor-level offenses typically involve merchandise valued from $350 to $500 or less.

Staib said there are five criteria recognized by the CAP program; however, there is flexibility for a retailer and law enforcement agency to add more specific criteria in their community. The criteria are: that the offender is not violent; does not have alcohol or drugs; is not part of organized crime; does not have a known prior offense; and has parental consent to do the program if the offender is a juvenile.

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However, even with the start of the pilot program at the Hastings Walmart, Schafer said it seems like the department is still at the store frequently.

"It's a high volume call load there and it is a time suck for us," he said.

The high call load to Walmart may have an impact on the police department, but Schafer said the employees of Walmart create a smooth process for the officers when they may need to make an arrest or take some action.

"The loss prevention people are great out there, they work hand in hand with our cops," Schafer said.

'Hosts' as deterrents

Company officials also point to a 2016 initiative that's aimed at beefing up crime deterrence at Walmart.

Since launching the "More at the Door" effort, 9,000 new "customer hosts" have been added to Walmart's Supercenter stores, where the yellow vest-clad workers greet customers, check receipts and keep the entrances clean, among other things.

Walmart spokesman Dickens said those workers have also received special training to help deter shoplifting.

"They're getting the standard asset protection training to allow them to know what they're looking for and how to handle a situation if they encounter it," Dickens said.

Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague lauded efforts like More at the Door, saying one key to reducing shoplifting is ensuring all floor employees are keeping their eyes peeled for suspicious activity.

"Everybody has a piece of that" investment, he said.

Dickens said 40 stores in the Minnesota-Wisconsin area have taken part in the More at the Door program. That's resulted in a 24 percent reduction in shoplifting at those stores, according to the company.

"It absolutely does" make a difference, Dickens said. "There's a direct connection."

In addition to crime-deterrence training they receive, he said the presence of the "customer hosts" adds a "mental aspect" that can ward off would-be shoplifters.

Continued communication

While the company manages internal policies toward crime, its store-level staff maintain regular contact with law enforcement — a relationship that both sides say has been effective.

In Woodbury, Vague said he's encouraged by the communication between his officers and security staff at stores like Walmart. If there's one thing Vague said he doesn't want, it's an us-versus-them scenario.

"We want them to call us," he said.

Adam Sack, a Woodbury patrol officer who specializes in retail crime, said he's in touch with security staff at local stores as much as possible. It helps to stay in touch with those stores since corporate policies, management and staff are in constant flux.

"That's why it's good for me to get to know them ahead of time," he said.

Sack called the Woodbury Walmart security team "stellar." That's a bonus, he said, when dealing with suspects who often tell him they think stealing from the suburbs is easy. Woodbury takes a hard stance on shoplifting and sends suspects to jail, Sack said.

In Cottage Grove, the Walmart security staff have cellphone numbers for local cops at the ready. Public Safety Director Craig Woolery said that, too, is the sign of a positive relationship and that the company is prioritizing public safety.

"It's definitely on their radar," he said.

Dickens said that while the company doesn't publicly discuss its policies, "we do rely on our asset protection teams inside of the store and are grateful to work with local law enforcement as necessary."