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SALT LAKE CITY — There's no question, police officers are busy. At KSL, we often get complaints that police are so strapped, they can't even send out an officer to some crimes. So where are police spending their time? KSL Investigators dug into police data from more than a dozen cities and discovered Wal-Mart is at the top of the list.
In Salt Lake City in 2015, the Road Home shelter area was No. 1 with 1,927 calls to police. But coming in a close second, with 1,590 calls last year alone, was the Wal-Mart at 350 Hope Ave. near 1300 South. It averages out to 4.3 calls every day.
Salt Lake City police detective Greg Wilking knows that spot all too well.
"I did seven years in patrol," Wilking said.
"Did you go to Wal-Mart that often?" asked KSL's Mike Headrick.
"There were times that we'd be there a couple times during our shift, two to three times," Wilking said. "And there were often times we felt like we couldn't leave, just another problem would come up."
It's not a problem unique to Salt Lake. Two different Wal-Marts made the top 10 list in West Valley City. In South Jordan, Layton, Taylorsville, Riverton, Ogden, Orem and Midvale, the No. 1 spot for police visits was Wal-Mart. In fact, police were called to Wal-Marts in just 10 Utah cities more than 8,000 times in 2015.
A police body camera shows a routine day for an officer, responding to Wal-Mart after a woman stole a backpack. While he's already there, there's another shoplifting call.
"We're in foot pursuit, 75-year-old male, handicapped cart," could be heard on Wal-Mart security's radio.
- Road Home Shelter: 1927 calls (#1)
- Walmart: 1590 calls (#2)
- Motel 6: 459 calls (#3)
- Walmart: 1008 calls (#1)
- Target: 285 calls (#7)
- Walmart: 806 calls (#1)
- Target: 184 calls (#5)
- Provo Towne Center Mall: 587 calls (#1)
- Walmart: 104 calls (#15)
- Walmart: 1062 calls (#1)
- Shopko: 243 calls (#10)
So why are cops spending so much time at Wal-Mart? KSL Investigators discovered a long list of reasons like assault, drugs and car accidents. But the overwhelming reason Wal-Mart calls the police is for shoplifting. It's listed in police reports 72 percent of the time.
"What do you think people are stealing at Wal-Mart?" Headrick asked.
"I'm guessing electronics. Things like iPads, cellphones, computers," answered Stewart Winder.
When we gave him an example of ChapStick and an apple, Winder was surprised.
"Really? And they call police for ChapStick and an apple?" Winder asked. "All right, I'm blown away."
There were often times we felt like we couldn't leave — just another problem would come up.
–Greg Wilking, SLCPD
Recent police reports show officers were called to Wal-Mart for a $4 pair of gloves. Officers were there for three hours. A $13 pack of lighters cost police four hours of time. Glasses, soap, shoes and a shirt worth $41? According to the police report, that ate up seven hours. Or how about the guy who stole the apple and a lighter worth less than a buck?
"For the rest of your life, any retail theft is going to be a felony offense, for a 50-cent apple and a 30-cent lighter," a police officer is heard telling an accused shoplifter on body-cam video.
Not worth it for the shoplifter, or arguably the publicly funded police officer who spent two hours of his time processing that case.
Do the math
Let's do the math on this. On May 14, police were called to a Wal-Mart after a shoplifter stole hair dye ($4), deodorant ($3) and hair gel ($8). Total loss for Wal-Mart was $15.27. But for the Salt Lake City police officer who spent six hours there, earning an average of $30/hour, the cost to taxpayers is $180.
"That seems out of balance to me," said former Salt Lake City Councilman Soren Simonsen. "I know there are needs that are not being met with the police departments, all the police departments virtually in the valley."
Simonsen is concerned about taxpayer money being spent in the right areas.
Police is one of the highest-cost services that the community provides ... so you've got to be very careful with those resources.
–Soren Simonsen, SLC Councilman
"Police is one of the highest-cost services that the community provides, across the board, and so you've got to be very careful with those resources," Simonsen said.
With that concern in mind, KSL Investigators spoke with Erica Jones, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. We asked her if Wal-Mart was a drain on police resources.
"We're investing in technologies and prevention efforts, but people are still coming into our stores to shoplift," Jones said. "If we stop someone and we actually catch them shoplifting, we are not law enforcement so that's why we call the police."
Jones said each store has "asset protection associates" who are tasked with stopping shoplifters. Wal-Mart is also implementing a new program that it hopes will curb shoplifting and cut down on the number of police calls.
Reaching a compromise
Several years ago, the Salt Lake City Police Department saw Wal-Mart as a problem and went straight to the source.
"When we showed them the history, you have the most calls for service other than the shelter area, that's pretty powerful," Wilking said. "I think that helped to bring them to the table to say hey, we need to work together to figure this out."
They reached a compromise with Wal-Mart. Off-duty officers are now stationed at the 13th South Wal-Mart for 12 hours a day, and Wal-Mart foots the bill. The deal has been in place for a year and it's made a difference.
"Our patrol officers out on the streets have noticed a decrease and that should translate into quicker response time for our officers to the general public out there," Wilking said.
Great news for that one store, but for the 58 other Wal-Marts around Utah, police remain one of their biggest customers.
"What if you had off-duty police officers at all your stores?" Headrick asked Wal-Mart's spokeswoman. "Do you think that would make a difference?"
"It's not one size fits all," Jones answered.
The issue between Wal-Mart and police is not unique to Utah. News outlets in Colorado, Florida, and South Carolina have also discovered that Wal-Mart is a very frequent stop for police in their states.