Lake Norman & Mooresville

Huntersville police partner with retailer to lower crime numbers at Walmart

Huntersville police are partnering with the management at the new Walmart in town to help lower overall crime numbers in the area, particularly during the busy holiday season.

Police Chief Cleveland Spruill said there have been a “significant” number of calls for service to the store, about 9 percent of the town’s “part one” crimes so far this year. Part one crimes are a range of serious offenses – ranging from the most serious crimes, such as murder and rape, to crimes such as vehicle theft – that police departments nationwide report to the FBI.

Calls coming from the local store have mainly included shoplifting, employee theft and “other types of typical criminal activity associated with large retail establishments,” Spruill said.

At a recent presentation to town board members about his first six months on the job, Spruill spoke about the “Walmart factor.”

The calls for service coming from Walmart, which has been open for about 1 1/2 years, account for a roughly 6 percent increase of the town’s overall crime rate, Spruill said, noting that the town’s overall crime numbers would be below their levels at this time last year if Walmart’s statistics were excluded.

However, even if the trends continue, Spruill estimated the town would end the year with the second-lowest total number of crimes in the last five years.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise, but it’s something we need to be focused on,” Spruill said.

“Any time you bring in a Walmart store, or (any) store of that size, there’s going to be an adverse impact on crime. It’s going to go up in and around the area, it’s just inherent with that type of business.

“What we’re seeing is consistent with other jurisdictions when they open this type of (store.)” In a recent 28-day period, for instance, officers responded to 24 calls for service and spent 32.4 service hours at the store, according to his report.

“We’re trying to push (crime numbers) down as low as we can by the end of the year, so when we add in the rest of the data for the rest of the town, we’re at or below last year,” Spruill said.

“We’re taking all the steps we think are necessary, which is quite a significant task, given there was nothing there last year. And this year, such a large establishment is really driving crime in the town.”

Huntersville’s Walmart is located in the Bryton development off N.C. 115 with close proximity to Interstate 485. It officially opened in late July 2013 and is open 24 hours, seven days a week.

Brian Nick, a spokesperson for Walmart, said the company has a two-fold goal: To be proactive in preventing crime rather than reactive with apprehension, and sharing information with local law enforcement to keep a safe environment for customers and store employees.

The Huntersville store has already made progress in lowering its crime numbers, Nick said, adding that specific techniques could not be discussed. “They have identified the areas that needed to be, and progress is being made.”

He said the store is working to be a good presence in the community. Not only does the store work with local law enforcement to help lower the number of calls generated in the area, they’ve also held several community medicine-drop events over the past 19 months, Nick said.

Store employees have volunteered more than 450 hours at area schools; held veterans’ celebrations and teacher appreciation events; made “substantial” donations of funds and supplies to local schools; as well as held life series skills sessions that help people prepare for job interviews, he said.

Store manager Lori Blackshear participated in Huntersville Police Department’s Citizen Police Academy and has been the keynote speaker at several schools, Nick said.

Before his retirement from the department in August 2013, former police chief Philip Potter told board members during an annual retreat that this kind of crime spike was common when Walmart stores entered a new community.

Numerous studies have been done over the years about the retailer and what, if any, effect it has on crime rates in the communities where stores are located, and results vary. Some claim that communities with Walmart stores have higher crime rates, or experience stunted decreases in crime over the years, while other findings claim little to no correlation.

Huntersville Town Manager Greg Ferguson said local officials wanted to take a “wait-and-see” approach to store-related crime so they could have flexibility in responding once the retailer was established. “We didn’t want to overstaff for a problem that didn’t exist,” Ferguson said.

“We’d be on track with last year if we removed that one set of statistics. Not to highlight one store as a problem, but to recognize that, overall in town, things are pretty safe,” Ferguson said, adding that Walmart wasn’t open long enough in 2013 to impact the year’s overall crime numbers.

Ferguson and Spruill both credit the local Walmart’s management for being cooperative, helpful and eager to help keep crime numbers low. “We’re pleased that it is a partnership,” Ferguson said, adding that resources will continue to be made available to police to address problems that may develop.

“They’re taking a proactive approach, the Police Department will be very vigilant during the holiday season to make sure it’s a safe environment.”

In addition to internal measures the store plans to take to deter criminal activity, Huntersville police will increase their presence in the area, as well as supplement the store’s armed security with off-duty officers, among other plans, Spruill said.

While officials don’t want residents to take law enforcement into their own hands or put themselves in danger, they encouraged the public to report suspicious or possibly criminal activity they may see in any store or parking lot, Spruill said.

“The public can play a role in trying to address the issue as well,” he said. “People are looking for an easy target. If you have a 100 cars, it’s easy to walk along and get one that’s open and unlocked.”

In addition to locking vehicle doors, Spruill advised locking any shopping packages or valuables in the trunk and out of sight.

“The parking lot is a target-rich environment. People come by and steal electronics, money or property, even from locked cars.”