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More than half of Oklahoma City shoplifting calls come from Walmart stores

At a little after 9:30 p.m. Jan. 7, Oklahoma City police officer Austin Shilling walked into the Walmart store at Belle Isle Station, where a loss prevention manager had told emergency dispatchers she'd spotted two shoplifters.

The manager told Shilling the pair had loaded up two grocery carts with groceries and clothes, pushed the carts past a row of checkout counters and headed to the exit. Store employees had stopped them before they made it out the door.

The call was one of thousands of shoplifting calls officers respond to in a year. Although dozens of retailers call police in any given year about shoplifting, more than half of those calls come from Walmart stores.

Police say the high volume of shoplifting reports and other 911 calls from Walmart stores ties up resources that could otherwise be used to prevent and solve other crimes.

"It's a problem," said Capt. Paco Balderrama, a spokesman for the Oklahoma City police department. "It's definitely a problem."

But Walmart officials point to a number of programs the company is implementing in hopes of reducing the number of calls its stores make to law enforcement. In an emailed statement, Walmart officials said the company had already begun seeing results from those programs.

“No retailer is immune to the challenge of crime," the statement said. "We recognize the importance of this issue at the highest levels of the company, and we are investing in people and technology to support our store."

Oklahoma City police responded to 2,234 shoplifting calls at retailers across the city during a recent one-year period. Those calls came from big box stores, mom-and-pop grocery stores, shopping malls and truck stops.

But 1,187 of those calls — about 53 percent — came from Walmart stores. Five of the city's 10 most frequent locations for shoplifting calls were Walmarts. Three Walmarts — one at Belle Isle Station, another on W Reno Avenue and a third off Interstate 240 in south Oklahoma City — were among the city's top locations for 911 calls of any kind.

Those figures are based on an analysis of records of Oklahoma City 911 calls placed between Aug. 1, 2015 and Aug. 1, 2016.

"We do respond a lot, in some cases over 1,000 police-related calls per year," Balderrama said.

Cases in which an officer only needs to go to a store to take a report are relatively low-priority calls, meaning they can wait until an officer is available. But cases in which the store has a shoplifting suspect in custody or a shoplifting just occurred are higher priority, meaning an officer needs to respond quickly.

Responding to one of those calls, arresting a suspect and booking him or her at the Oklahoma County jail can take as long as two and a half hours, Balderrama said. During that time, the responding officer can't respond to any other calls that come up.

Balderrama said big, heavily trafficked places like Walmart stores, shopping malls and State Fair Park are target-rich environments for criminals. That leads not only to shoplifting calls, but also calls for other crimes like auto burglary, he said.

That isn't to say that Walmart stores are inherently unsafe for shoppers, Balderrama said. Most of the problems in such stores come from low-level property crimes, not violent crime, he said.

Private security guards or off-duty police officers could help the stores head off some of those shoplifting calls before they happen, Balderrama said. Potential criminals are less likely to steal from a store when they see a police car in the parking lot, he said.

Department officials hope to work with Walmart stores to reduce the number of 911 calls, Balderrama said.

Ragan Dickens, a Walmart corporate spokesman, said the company has already begun implementing programs they hope will reduce those calls. Those programs include placing so-called customer hosts, who are trained in shoplifting prevention, at stores' doors, as well as hiring more asset protection workers.

The company also has set up a program that allows first-time, low-risk shoplifters the alternative of going through an educational course rather than being prosecuted. Dickens said the company has seen a 35 percent drop in the number of calls its stores make to law enforcement agencies nationwide since implementing the program.

That program is in place at 1,500 Walmart stores nationwide, Dickens said, including stores in the Oklahoma City area. Dickens wouldn't specify which stores use the program.

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Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›

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