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Sheriff says Walmart security policy ‘breeds’ criminal activity after Eldersburg location robbed at gunpoint

Sheriff says Walmart security policy ‘breeds’ criminal activity after Eldersburg location robbed at gunpoint
Sheriff Jim DeWees addresses the graduates during the Carroll County Sheriff's Office Training Academy graduation ceremony held at Winters Mill High School on Friday, March 22. (Brian Krista / Carroll County Times)

In a week when Walmart’s security has been scrutinized nationwide, Carroll County’s sheriff directed strongly worded criticisms of the company’s security policies after a man allegedly robbed the Eldersburg location at gunpoint Friday morning.

“Walmart’s corporate policy on security breeds this type of activity,” Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees said in an interview Friday.

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DeWees alleged that would-be criminals know they will encounter little to no security when they enter a Walmart store. He described Walmart’s approach to security as “reactive” rather than “proactive.”

“They all but wait for these things to happen before they put measures into place,” he said.

Carroll County Sheriff's Office cars are parked outside the Walmart in Eldersburg Friday morning, Aug. 9, 2019.
Carroll County Sheriff's Office cars are parked outside the Walmart in Eldersburg Friday morning, Aug. 9, 2019. (Dylan Slagle)

The armed robbery in Eldersburg occurred just a day after police in Springfield, Missouri, said they arrested a man who went to a Walmart store with a rifle and body armor, terrifying shoppers. No shots were fired.

Two days before that, reports of an active shooter at a Walmart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, prompted local law enforcement to rush to the scene, only to find a false alarm.

And on Saturday, 22 people died and over two dozen others were injured in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

When asked what Walmart would need to do in Eldersburg to prevent crime there, DeWees said “armed security.”

“That’s what the people in the store working there expect and the people visiting the store expect,” he said.

In response to DeWees’ comments, spokesman Casey Staheli said Walmart recognizes this issue “at the highest levels at the company.”

“We are investing in people, programs and technology to support our stores,” Staheli said. "We have invested a half-billion dollars over the past four years to make our stores safer, and we’ve seen a reduction in shoplifting by 30% over those four years.”

DeWees alleged Walmart’s security policy is lacking and said his deputies patrol the area of the Eldersburg Walmart more frequently than they might if crime rates were lower there. DeWees did not have crime statistics immediately available.

“Find me a Walmart that isn’t a burden on law enforcement resources and I will kiss your a--," he said. "Their corporate policies are pitiful when it comes to securing their stores and protecting their employees and the customers that are there.”

DeWees also spoke specifically in regard to the Eldersburg Walmart and its surrounding area.

“We have, over the last several weeks, gotten a bad feeling something might take place and have done a number of crime initiative down there," he said. "In fact, I think the initiative was about to start at 8 a.m., we had deputies that were supposed to be down there at 8 a.m. patrolling Eldersburg Commons and that area and trying to deter anyone from coming there and stealing. Of course, this [the armed robbery] happens at 7 a.m.”

This man is a suspect in the Eldersburg Walmart robbery that occurred Aug. 9, 2019. Carroll County Sheriff's Office is investigating. (Courtesy of Carroll County Sheriff's Office)
This man is a suspect in the Eldersburg Walmart robbery that occurred Aug. 9, 2019. Carroll County Sheriff's Office is investigating. (Courtesy of Carroll County Sheriff's Office) (Carroll County Sheriffs Office / HANDOUT)

DeWees noted that his frustrations lie with corporate, not the local people who work at Walmart. DeWees said he’s spoken to the Eldersburg store’s manager, describing them as cooperative, but learned that making changes to security lies with the higher-ups.

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In response to DeWees, Staheli said Walmart wants to “deter” crime, not just “detect” it.

“And so what we are doing is we are investing in people, programs and technology," Staheli said. "Through our More at the Door program, we’ve placed customer hosts in 3,300 of our U.S. stores. In addition to greeting customers, checking receipts where appropriate and assisting with returns and keeping our entrances clean and safe, the customers hosts receive specific training to help deter shoplifting.”

When he met with regional Walmart representatives in the past, DeWees said, those conversations led to small changes but “nothing significant.” He pointed to the security camera footage of the robbery suspect from Friday as an example of Walmart’s low-quality surveillance. The Eldersburg Walmart does not have uniformed security guards, DeWees said, though he believes there are plainclothes loss prevention employees.

The “poor” security is not exclusive to the Eldersburg location, DeWees said, adding that it’s a problem at the Mount Airy, Hampstead and Westminster locations as well.

When asked what security improvements might be made at the Eldersburg location, Staheli said, “We’re always looking at ways to improve our security."

“That’s what a lot of these investments have done,” Staheli continued. "We have installed eye level cameras … convex mirrors that hang overhead to show criminals themselves. We do have the CCTV and public monitors. We have installed higher fencing around our garden areas. We are always reviewing what’s best for each store and making decisions.”

DeWees also alleged Walmart has a loss threshold for each store that is deemed acceptable and that security is not increased until that threshold is passed.

He suggested that corporate Walmart values selling products more than protecting customers and employees.

“Walmart has an acceptable amount of loss,” DeWees said. “My acceptable amount of loss is zero.”

When asked about the other incidents elsewhere in the U.S. this week, DeWees said he’s concerned about shooting incidents at any place where many people gather.

“I worry about it constantly,” he said.

In his near five years as sheriff, DeWees said he could not recall a time when there was an armed robbery at a big-box store such as Walmart.

“We spent a lot of time there over the last couple of months and just noticed that our crime in that area was going up quite a bit,” he said. “But this is not a new issue as far as crime showing up at Walmart. It’s the first time that I know somebody has been bold enough to walk in there with a handgun and point it at someone’s face at 7 a.m. on a Friday in a very busy store like that, which I think is extraordinarily unusual.”

DeWees said he’s happy to send his officers to patrol the area, but businesses need to do their part to aid law enforcement in preventing crime.

“We can’t be everywhere all the time,” DeWees said. “It seems like there’s been an awful lot of law enforcement resources used at these Walmarts across the country.”

Friday’s armed robbery

Carroll County Sheriff’s Office deputies were dispatched at about 7:08 a.m. to the Walmart Supercenter at 6400 Ridge Road, according to a Sheriff’s Office news release. A man “walked up to a register, reportedly displayed a handgun, and demanded money. The employee complied, and the suspect exited the store and fled the area,” the release states.

The suspect vehicle is pictured. (Courtesy of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office)
The suspect vehicle is pictured. (Courtesy of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office) (Carroll County Sheriffs Office / HANDOUT)

“There is no indication of any ongoing threat to the community. This was, however, an armed robbery, and anyone who may observe the suspect is reminded to contact the Sheriff’s Office and not approach the suspect,” Jonathan Light, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, wrote in an email. Light did not elaborate on why there was no public threat. No one was injured, he said.

The suspect at the Eldersburg Walmart was described as a black man, estimated to be in his late 40s, about 5-foot-5, and thin, with a “graying beard” but no mustache, the release reads.

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“The suspect was last seen wearing a dark blue automotive mechanic uniform, a dark blue baseball hat and sunglasses,” the release states.

Police believe the man left in dark-colored Chevrolet Impala sedan, according to the release.

Detectives from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit are investigating, according to the release.

“Anyone with information about this incident or possible suspects is asked to contact Detective Reese at dmreese@carrollcountymd.gov, 410-386-2577, or the Anonymous TIPS Hotline at 1-888-399-TIPP,” the release states.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.

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