It might appear that Port Richey, Florida is in the midst of a crimewave. Between 2012 to 2013, citywide crime increased 58 percent. However, almost half of all the city's unlawful activity is occurring at the local Walmart. Forty-six percent, to be exact, between February 2014 and February 2015, according to Port Richey Police Chief Robert Lovering.
From the outside, the Walmart looks pretty innocuous. It sits just off a busy highway plastered with billboards for accident and injury attorneys. The building is a blocky behemoth of a thing, behind a strip mall with a Mattress Firm and a Movie Stop. It's one of those all-in-one Walmarts—it has an optometrist, a tire shop, and the complete first season of the Big Bang Theory on DVD. It also boasts a whopping 63 percent of all the city's thefts.
"Last year," said Chief Robert Lovering, "we only had 13 burglaries in the whole year. If you take the Walmart thefts out of the equation, our numbers are miniscule."
Because of the concentration of crime, the local discount store has become a serious concern for Port Richey's local law enforcement.
"We're there two times a day," he said. "Sometimes more. On a bad day we can be there four, five, six times easily."
For reference, Port Richey is a town of about 2,600 residents and 2.1 square miles. The police department, according to the chief, has 16 police officers, and some shifts are only two officers and a supervisor. For Lovering, it's a matter of being able to serve the community, and not spend all his resources at the store.
"The taxes that come from Walmart are not even enough to cover two police officer's salaries," he said. "Residents are paying for police officers they're not going to be able to use, because they're not there."
Port Richey is located in Pasco County, Florida, the eye of the hurricane that is weird Florida news, and other Walmarts in the county are not immune from its reach. For example, there was that time a man shot another man in the face with a pellet gun because he thought he was Muslim.
There was that other time where a Sheriff's Deputy was investigating a theft, saw his buddy doing the crime on video, and then declined to investigate the case. Or the one where the elderly woman and man got into a tiff, and he ended up clinging to her car while she barreled through the parking lot.
Related: VICE travels to the Sunshine State to report on Florida's gun laws.
I drove to the Port Richey Walmart yesterday afternoon to see if anyone could give me any insight into the issue. I found a woman holding a baby in a carrier, walking to her car. She introduced herself as Ashley Sarah. She's 27, and she's lived in Port Richey since she was three years old.
I told her about the problem while she lit up a cigarette, and she nodded.
"I'm not surprised," she said. "It's probably because there's a lot of drugs around here. I'm scared for my daughter to grow up here."
A Walmart employee in a vest saw me in the parking lot and walked back into the store rapidly. Sarah explained that people often come up to her and other customers in the parking lot and ask for money, or look for used receipts to go into the store and fraudulently return items.
At that point, I saw an assistant manager talking on the phone near the entrance of the store. I went over to him to ask if he knew about all the crimes. He referred me to a number, which I called, and a recorded voice told me to either email or call, but not both. I also reached out to Walmart's media department, to ask about the crimes, but they couldn't be reached by the time of publication.
In a statement last week, Walmart told Bay News 9 reporter Leah Masuda it was aware of the issue and it was working with the Port Richey Police.
"Unfortunately, criminal activity such as shoplifting is a challenge all retailers deal with," a Walmart representative said. "Our asset protection team does a great job in identifying people who break the law in our stores, which demonstrates that Walmart is the wrong place to attempt these crimes. And while Walmart is effective at detecting these crimes, we will continue to collaborate with local police to focus on crime prevention."
Lately, the Port Richey police department has been upping its patrol of the area, but Lovering said a big part of the problem is that Walmart waits for someone to commit the crime, and then calls police, rather than preventing the crime in the first place.
"A lot of times store security will witness them getting a receipt from outside, and allow them to pick up [the item], allow them to check out, and then apprehend them," he said. "We want them to stop that crime from occurring in the first place."
But the problem isn't just a Port Richey problem. Lovering used to work in Tampa, a large metropolitan city, where he said about 10 percent of all thefts happened in Walmarts. That's usually the case all over the country.
Captain Bill Ferguson said he's sees a lot of the same faces over and over again, and it would help if Walmart would stop letting them back into the store. He also knows that because a smaller town might not have as many big stores, Walmart becomes a de facto gathering spot, as well as a center for crime.
"I would say that this is not just unique to Port Richey," Captain Bill Ferguson said. "Walmart comes into a small town and it also tends to cause havoc with your crime rate."
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