WRAL Investigates

Police question security at Wal-Marts

Posted September 15, 2008 5:06 p.m. EDT
Updated September 15, 2008 7:18 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina is home to nearly 130 Wal-Mart stores, offering customers an array of merchandise and low prices. Some law enforcement officials said the stores also provide plenty of opportunities for criminals.

Lumberton police, for example, were called to a Wal-Mart at 4301 Fayetteville Road nearly 630 times between January and mid-October last year.

Last month, a 78-year-old woman was attacked in the store's parking lot, and her purse was stolen. A 71-year-old woman was mugged in the parking lot earlier in the year.

Police calls at Wal-Mart far exceed those at other shopping centers in town, said Lt. Johnny Barnes of the Lumberton Police Department. He added that he has seen a drop in calls since the department ramped up patrols near the Wal-Mart.

Barnes and other law enforcement officers said the sheer size and popularity of Wal-Mart can invite trouble. The chain has more than 3,000 stores nationwide, many of which are open 24 hours a day, and company officials say they have about 200 million customers.

"Just the number of people that go there attracts the criminal element," Barnes said.

Ann Marie Copelin, 60, was loading groceries into her car outside the Wal-Mart at 3725 Ramsey St. in Fayetteville shortly before 10 p.m. Aug. 12 when she went from being a customer to a crime victim.

"The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by three women," Copelin said. "I was too terrified to scream or run. I just did what they said."

The women forced her at gunpoint to drive to a bank and used her debit card to withdraw $500. She wasn't injured in the incident.

Other area Wal-Marts have been the scene of crimes this summer as well:

  • An employee was beaten with a baseball bat at a Clayton store on Aug. 7
  • Another employee was shot while on break at a Clinton store on July 17.
  • A gun was fired inside a store in Sanford on Aug. 1.
  • A rash of purse snatchings occurred outside a store in Hope Mills.

"I think there's a lot of things that (Wal-Mart) could do that they're not doing," Barnes said. "The best thing that they could do is hire some type of security there to work in the parking lots."

In 2004, a Washington-based activist group, Wake Up Wal-Mart, analyzed 551 stores nationwide for the entire year. North Carolina had the highest rate of police calls, averaging 398 incidents for each of the 28 Wal-Marts profiled.

The study also compared the retail giant with Target. At a Wal-Mart in Greenville, for example, police were called 664 times in 2004. The Target store one-tenth of a mile away had 159 calls during the same period.

Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman said many of the police calls are for fender benders in the parking lot or for bad checks, not criminal activity.

"Nothing is more important than providing a safe and pleasurable working environment for our customers and our associates," Fogleman said in a phone interview from Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. "Unfortunately, criminal activity occurs in every community. It's something retailers, especially large retailers like us, must work toward alleviating."

Every Wal-Mart has surveillance cameras, and the company decides on a store-by-store basis whether to hire private patrols or off-duty police officers for additional security, he said.

Two private security cars, for example, recently were seen patrolling the parking lot of a Wal-Mart on Skibo Road in Fayetteville.

Wal-Mart is "constantly evaluating the security measures we have in place," Fogleman said.

Wake Up Wal-Mart estimated putting security patrols at all Wal-Mart stores nationwide would cost the retailer about 4 cents per monthly customer visit.

"Any security firm that you would put patrolling the parking lot would help. I think it would be a deterrent," Barnes said.

The store where Copelin was kidnapped has no security patrols, but she said she doesn't blame Wal-Mart for what happened and said she plans to keep shopping there.

"I won't go by myself after dark. I won't go to Food Lion by myself after dark," she said.