A 21-year-old man was charged with murder last week after shooting another man in the parking lot of a Walmart in Auburn, Me. At the retailer’s store in North Bergen, N.J., a woman squirted pepper spray at people around the customer service desk in February, temporarily blinding some employees and customers. She then retreated into a back room, wielding a knife and shouting obscenities.
And on Monday a customer grabbed a kitchen knife off a shelf, began unwrapping it and threatened an employee, prompting an evacuation of a Walmart in Marietta, Ga. A few weeks ago, a man was arrested at the same store, accused of trying to kidnap a 9-year-old from the bathroom.
Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, with more than 4,000 sprawling stores dotted across every region of the United States. And partly because it operates in so many places, crime, some of it deadly, seems to follow it.
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The shooting at the Walmart in El Paso that killed 22 people on Saturday was the worst episode to happen inside or in the parking lot of one its stores in the company’s history. Police and law enforcement experts have said there was not much Walmart could have done within that store to prevent the gunman from carrying out the massacre. But it has placed renewed attention on why the retailer has historically been the scene of so much crime, and whether the company has done enough to deter it.
In the week before the El Paso shooting, at least three people were killed at Walmart stores across the nation, including two employees who, officials said, were shot by a former colleague at the store in Southaven, Miss.
“In some ZIP codes, Walmart is a significant driver of crime rates,” said David C. Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado who was the co-author of a 2014 study analyzing the stores’ impact on local crime.
There are thousands of reports of shoplifting each year, straining the resources of local police departments, who say they spend much of their day processing petty theft cases. Police have complained that Walmart, renowned for controlling costs, depends too heavily on the local police and taxpayers to prosecute wrongdoing in its stores, rather than taking on the responsibility — and expense — itself.
In some cities in Kentucky, calls related to Walmart sites accounted for as much as 36 percent of all crime reports, according to one analysis. The police department in Tulsa, Okla., logged 1,700 more calls for service at their Walmart locations than their next leading retailer, according to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek in 2016. The Tampa Bay Times reported that in some years local police departments received, on average, two calls every hour about problems at Walmart stores in several Florida counties.
With thousands of stores, covering nearly much of the United States, the police say bad things are bound to happen when people of all walks of life coexist in an enclosed space.
In many rural areas, Walmart is the primary place where people come to shop and socialize, and bump into friends or enemies. Sometimes these chance encounters lead to violence, as was the case with the killing at the Walmart in Maine late last month. The two men, who were engaged in a running dispute, encountered each other in the Walmart parking lot.
“It does suggest that if this is the nature of your clientele, you need to have security provisions in place,” said Michael Scott, director of the center for problem-oriented policing at Arizona State University. “It should be built into your business model. What is unfair is to say, if bad people come to our store, that is the responsibility of the police.”
Walmart says it has taken steps to improve security at its stores, like installing cameras in parking lots, known as “lot cops,” and hiring off-duty police officers on busy days like Black Friday. The Walmart greeters, who once only welcomed shoppers as they entered the store, now have expanded duties that include checking receipts and helping with returns — increasing interactions with shoppers that can act as a deterrent.
“You can never predict violence; no business can,” a Walmart spokesman, Randy Hargrove, said. “But what you can do is prepare for it. We are continuing to invest and change because safety is a top priority.”
There were no armed security guards on duty at the time of the massacre in El Paso. It was a busy shopping weekend, with the store packed with people stocking up for the new school year.
Because of open-carry gun laws in Texas, Walmart shoppers at the store in El Paso and other stores around the state are allowed to carry firearms openly.
“It adds to the chaos,’’ said Shannon Watts, a founder of Moms Demand Action. “If someone is openly carrying in Walmart, how does anyone know who the bad guy is or who the good guy is? How do you know if that’s a police officer or someone who intends to do you harm?”
Walmart remains the largest gun seller in the nation, even as the company has been gradually limiting the types of firearms that it sells. The company stopped selling handguns in nearly all its stores years ago and dropped AR-15 rifles from its shelves in 2015.
After the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018, Walmart began requiring all gun buyers be at least 21 years of age, regardless of local laws. Last month, Walmart stopped selling guns in its stores in New Mexico after the state expanded its law on background checks.
Walmart now sells guns in about half of its roughly 4,000 supercenters around the country. Mr. Hargrove said the shooting at the Walmart in El Paso has not prompted any discussions among the company’s senior management about further restricting gun sales.
“We have worked very, very hard to be a responsible gun seller, and we have tried a number of things to support that mission,” Mr. Hargrove said. “That is our focus as we go forward.”
In Marietta, a city outside Atlanta, police receive at least one call a day from the city’s two Walmart stores, mostly for shoplifting. But in the past few weeks, the store has been the scene of more serious crimes. In June, a 9-year-old boy said that while he was using the restroom a man told him that his mother had left the store and he should come with him. When the boy refused, the 51-year-old man grabbed him by the arm, the police said. The boy broke free and found his mother, who called the police.
Then on Monday morning, the police received a call about a “family dispute” at the customer service desk that quickly escalated when a man grabbed a large kitchen knife from a display. He “was attempting to remove it from the packaging while aggressively approaching one of the Walmart employees,” according to a police report. The man was charged with simple assault.
“Certain things tend to happen in particular places,” Chuck McPhilamy, the public information officer for the Marietta police, said in an interview. “Walmart is one of them.”