Our short bio: We’re Zack Sampson, Laura Morel and Eli Murray, cops and data reporters at the Tampa Bay Times. We just published a story showing how Walmarts in Tampa Bay drew 16,800 police calls in a year. That’s two an hour, every hour, every day. A lot of it was for shoplifting, like the guy who drank a 98-cent iced tea without paying and spent 10 days in jail. But even more was for plain disorder, like the drunk guy screaming at the deli or the man who ripped open packages of diapers or the loudmouth teens cursing at the manager. Walmart wouldn’t let us inside their loss prevention office, so we got body camera footage of deputies going inside.



Edit: Thank you to everyone that participated today and took the time to ask such awesome questions! We're going take a break to recoup and get some other work done but we'll be around into the night so if you have any other questions please, please keep them coming. And don't forget to check out the story at www.tampabay.com/walmartcops if you have yet to do so!

Edit 2: Just made tacos let's keep these great Q's coming, folks!

Edit 3: Alright folks, it's been fun and insightful but 9 hours of reddit is about all I can take. I'll swing by in the morning to answer some more questions.

Comments: 1399 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

boobies13602 karma

Did you get a sense of whether this just happens because more people are at Walmart (a simple numbers issue), or because it's something cultural, like to do with the socioeconomics of the demographics of Walmart shoppers? Also, any insight about demographics? Were more minorities targeted? Sorry for long q. Keep up the good work.

elimurray373 karma

Here are a couple charts that we decided to cut from the package because they didn't work well on mobile :(

mattoneil78 karma

That brings up a follow up question for me. How much has reporting changed or how much does formatting for mobile or online change reporting from years ago. If you had more real estate would you have added anything?

elimurray116 karma

I wouldn't say it has changed the reporting per se because the Times has been doing awesome work for decades. But moving into a the digital age, it is super important that we meet our readers where they spend most of their time - on mobile.

The chart above was the only graphic that got cut -- usually there are smart ways to deal with the smaller screen sizes on mobile. The issue with the above chart was that it did some cool animating transitions when you clicked on it and those were a little too processor intensive for mobile devices. Here's a gif of the transition.

eriwinsto45 karma

I just wanna say, you guys down there at the Times are just killin' it. Your story was phenomenal. Laura Reiley's "Farm to Fable" was magnificent. Politifact is the de facto arbitrator of truth in the political world. And, of course, you're promoting it extremely well--I'm glad to see that there seems to be a market for innovative journalism.

elimurray5 karma

Thank you! That means a lot to me and the rest of my colleagues.

crymearicki-16 karma

That was an example of cool animating transitions? It's 2016, not 1998.

elimurray8 karma

That was a graphic that was never fully finished. I suppose cool is subjective but hey, I thought it was! It was certainly complicated under the hood.

EricT5950 karma

What's with the Areesteeekkkkddkdkd? What should it read

zacksampson67 karma

TK is garble for "to come." Something about arrests that would be readable but that we had not yet come up with

EricT5946 karma

Ohhh sort of like Ipsum Lorum... when doing layout work

elimurray41 karma


rhino43grr282 karma

Why was the story packaged like a retro computer? Old computers don't seem to have much to do with police being called to Walmart.

elimurray334 karma

The idea was to recreate an old-school police dispatch screen. I started working on the web graphics back in November so I can neither confirm nor deny that there may have been some Fallout 4 influence there ...

DaSilence190 karma

Zack, Laura, and Eli,

I've read your article a couple of times now, and I find it a little troubling.

Not because I think the reporting is bad, but I'm not the world's biggest fan of some of the points you try to make.

First and foremost, you spend a LOT of time comparing Walmart to other big box retailers based on property tax assessment vs. police call volume. The assertion that you make (but never say) is that Walmart is using "more" than their share because they pay less tax than other stores.

First, I'm going to assume that a percentage of the sales tax collected in these locations goes back to the city and county governments to fund these departments, so looking at property tax alone is misleading.

And second, I'm not sure I'm wild about the assertion that you should only be able to utilize police resources in line with your contribution to the local government via property and sales tax. Do poor people not deserve police protection from petty crime because they don't pay much in tax?

Am I, a long time LEO, going to refuse to investigate a minor vandalism at someone's house just because it's only 900 square feet and in a shitty neighborhood?

Next, let's take some time to address that Walmart is fairly unique is that they're the only big-box retailer that's willing to build in these shitty neighborhoods. You ever see a shiny Target next to a housing project?


Ever wonder why?

Walmart, by design, is in crappy neighborhoods (it's also in nice neighborhoods too). It's within walking distance of the projects, or just a short bus ride away. It does this on purpose.

Companies should do as much as they can to keep their properties in order before leaning on police, said Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect, a book about the retailer’s growth and social impact. He equated Walmart’s high volume of calls to the parents of a misbehaving 11-year-old who call 911 every time their child acts out.

You know, I really can't believe I'm defending Walmart here, but fuck Charles Fishman. Every company deserves to prosecute thieves. If you steal, you deserve everything that you get. This is one of the worst analogies I've ever read, and I'm frankly disappointed in you three for including it in your article.

The different between the two situations is that one is dealing with people who are actually breaking the law, and the other isn't. And the fact that you can't tell the difference makes me question both your integrity and your honesty.

Next, I'm going to take Eli to task for bad data analysis.

In most cases, the Walmart stores were larger than the Targets. The Times accounted for the size difference by calculating the number of calls for every 10,000 square feet of store space. Even then, the Walmarts averaged more than three times the calls, producing about 30 per 10,000 square feet compared with only about nine at Target.

Dude, this is some deceptive shit, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you're going to try to do a meaningful comparison, you have to use either traffic numbers (how many people enter the store) or transaction numbers (how many people check out). Trying to compare one store to another based on square footage is deceptive at best.

Finally, I want to address this nonsense:

Responding to Walmart has become so routine that officers show up without even being called. They drive slowly through the parking lot or stop to write unrelated reports. Other times they go inside and walk the aisles, or just buy a soda.

For patrol officers, these unsolicited visits to Walmarts are an easy decision, said Scott, the former Lauderhill police chief.

“Look, I either get called there later, or I go there now and prevent things,” he said.

The Times found more than 6,200 of these visits, on top of the other 16,800 calls.

Garafano, the former Walmart employee in Brandon, said he sometimes saw sheriff's patrol cars parked near the supercenter on East Brandon Boulevard, even when nothing was happening.

“It was almost like they were kind of just waiting to get a call,” he said.

Look, I know you're trying to push a narrative, and I appreciate that, but had you actually talked to a current patrol officer you'd learn why LEOs LOVE Walmart parking lots:

  • They're clean
  • They're huge
  • They're well-lit
  • They're almost always centrally located
  • They always have great cell phone coverage

Why does this matter?

Because when I'm between calls and can get some paperwork done, this is PRECISELY the kind of place I want to stop and do it.

I can see around me, so no one can sneak up behind me and kill me.

I can get to anywhere I need to be in relatively little time.

And the cell modem in my trunk has a great connection to the network, so my computer system works right.

All in all, not a bad article, but you got lazy, and that disappoints me.

elimurray163 karma

First, I want you to know that I am grateful that you took the time to read the article and reply with some excellent questions. I'm going to try to address your concerns point-by-point.

First, I'm going to assume that a percentage of the sales tax collected in these locations goes back to the city and county governments to fund these departments, so looking at property tax alone is misleading.

While it's true that at least some sales tax makes its way back to city coffers, there are a couple reasons we didn't include it in our comparisons. The major reason: Florida law exempts sales tax figures from FOIA so we just couldn't get that data. We tried, and if we had been able to, you can bet we would have included that in the story.

Second, technically sales tax is a tax on consumers, not businesses. Walmart is not paying a sales tax on items they sell, the people who buy them are. So you could make the argument that Walmart is a generator of sales tax but I don't think that argument holds water. If people weren't buying goods from Walmart, they would be buying them from somewhere else. You could probably even go so far as to say that cities would be generating more in sales tax revenue from stores that sell the same goods as Walmart but at a higher price.

And second, I'm not sure I'm wild about the assertion that you should only be able to utilize police resources in line with your contribution to the local government via property and sales tax. Do poor people not deserve police protection from petty crime because they don't pay much in tax?

That wasn't ever the assertion. The tax comparisons were only one metric we used in exploring a very complicated issue. In reality, and we talk about this in the article, there are things that police can do to limit the number of resources they are spending on policing at Walmart just as there are ways Walmart can be less of a burden on police. There's a give and a take there but ultimately Walmart has nearly infinitely more resources than your average police department.

Dude, this is some deceptive shit, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you're going to try to do a meaningful comparison, you have to use either traffic numbers (how many people enter the store) or transaction numbers (how many people check out). Trying to compare one store to another based on square footage is deceptive at best.

I would have loved to make comparisons based on traffic numbers at individual stores. Unfortunately, neither Walmart nor Target was able to provide us with specifics. If you happen to have connections and want to put us in touch I would gladly take a look at those numbers.

Look, I know you're trying to push a narrative, and I appreciate that, but had you actually talked to a current patrol officer you'd learn why LEOs LOVE Walmart parking lots:

  • They're clean
  • They're huge
  • They're well-lit
  • They're almost always centrally located
  • They always have great cell phone coverage

That's an interesting take and I'll take your word for it that it has some effect on an LEO's decision to spend time there. I will tell you that we spent A LOT of time talking with LEOs and doing ride alongs. We have officers outright telling us they were made to do roll call in Walmart parking lots as a deterrent. They told us they were told to make frequent trips to Walmarts to prevent crime.

I don't blame you for this but I think it's pretty easy to read the article and not realize how much work actually went into the reporting here. I have been working on this project for the better part of 9 months and Zack and Laura began working on it before I did. This story would not have published if we didn't think we had exhaustively pursued every avenue we could. Think about it, after working on a project for nearly a year, what's the harm in holding it for another month if we thought we could make it better?

Again, thank you for you thoughtful questions and for taking the time to read the story. I hope you will share it with your LEO colleagues and get their opinions on it as well.

mattoneil17 karma

I'm not sure that you can draw conclusions from the data provieded. That is the main problem with 'big data'. There are two types of statistics drawn from big data: inferential and predictive. I don't think we can draw a causal relationship between calls for service and Walmart, but we can perhaps predict that future calls for service will come from Walmart. What raw data did you get from the various law enforcement agencies, and do you have it in a repository so that others may analyze the data?

elimurray17 karma

I totally get what you're saying about drawing conclusions from big, messy data. We ended up gathering about 30k police call records to Walmart as PDFs (never again). We also have another 300k calls from agencies that gave us all CFS. Of the 30k to Walmart we very deliberately took care not to double count calls (say someone gets popped for shoplifting and it turns out they have a warrant -- in most CAD systems, that's two calls) which led to us publishing the less sensational, but more accurate, 16,800 calls number.

But anyway, more onto your point, I think you're right, we couldn't have run the story if we had just analyzed police calls to Walmart. A huge part of the story was getting the context for our numbers - How often are police at similar retailers? How much of a city's tax base is paid by Walmart? Why is it that people steal from Walmart so often but not Target? It's the whole package that makes the data reliable, not just the data itself.

LoraRolla9 karma

Why is it that people steal from Walmart so often but not Target? It's the whole package that makes the data reliable, not just the data itself.

Was this ever answered?

elimurray11 karma

We discussed some reasons in the article, but when it comes down to it, there's no singular reason.

gitsao6 karma

Do you ever read the comment section?

elimurray13 karma

Occasionally but it's different there than say reddit. People in the comment sections on our site don't want a discussion, they just want to share an opinion. Redditors otoh tend to favor a discussion.

Crib_D4 karma

First off, great job. However, I think there is an interesting angle your story overlooks. In describing how Wal Mart creates a disproportionate burden on taxpayers by failing, vis-a-vis other similar businesses, to secure their stores, you seem to make the implicit argument that Wal Mart is being unjustly enriched at the expense of taxpayers. But given Wal Mart's "razor thin margins," which you acknowledge, isn't it equally true that the expense borne by taxpayers operates as a subsidy for low income shoppers? I.e., if Wal Mart had to internalize the expense of security, rather than externalize it onto taxpayers, wouldn't Wal Mart have to raise their prices, and wouldn't the net effect be to make things tougher on poor people?

elimurray3 karma

That's a good question and a really interesting way to frame it!

I guess all I can say to that is that we are talking about a company here that makes 15 billion in annual profits. Why do companies that make less take more preventative measures? What would happen if every retailer called police at similar rates proportional to their size? And it is certain that even with their strict policies in place people still get away with shoplifting from Walmart. If they put more preventative measures in place that deterred more people from even attempting to shoplift, wouldn't that be better for them too? Maybe, maybe not. This is just speculation but I have a feeling that Walmart has analyzed the hell out of this and just decided it was cheaper for them to call police rather than deal with it themselves.

Thanks for taking the time to read the article and to ask such an insightful question!

vhdblood3 karma

Not sure if this is common or not, but in Denver the Police have a cop stationed in the Walmart. There's a large sign when you come in, that says something like, "We here at Walmart are proud to join forces with the Police Department. An officer is stationed on site." or something like that, and normally, there's a police officer standing there. This is definitely at three Walmarts in the Denver area that I've seen.

Is this common in other places? Does Tampa do this at all? (Sorry if I missed it in the article, it's pretty beefy and I haven't read through it all yet.)

elimurray3 karma

Not that I'm aware of in Tampa but Zack talked to a police department in NH that had a police substation in their Walmart.

princelabia3 karma

Lifelong Tampa Bay resident...how do you feel about the Tribune being bought out and what does it do for competition in the Bay area?

elimurray3 karma

It's a sad thing to see an institution of journalism no longer able to support itself. It sucks to see so many talented folks lose their jobs. As for competition in the literal sense of competing papers, it clearly changes the game. As for competition in the sense of competing viewpoints, I think that the Times is up to the challenge.

OJSamson3 karma

Can this be credited to a lack of store security? Is Walmart shorting their security because they know the police will handle it?

elimurray3 karma

It's a big, complicated issue but uniformed security plays a role in the equation.

rundmcc2 karma

"Many individual supercenters attracted more calls than the much larger WestShore Plaza mall." -- do you believe this is because the mall has it's own security and the supercenters do not? -- The real question here... do you believe this is a local/regional problem or a national corporate policy issue?

I see the article mentioned there were 53 Walmart locations. But were the calls spread pretty evenly across the supercenters?

Edit: I just want to say what an amazingly well done article this is! Wow.

elimurray4 karma

I do believe that mall cops are part of reason.

As to your second question, here's the result of a query I just ran on the database we built. I should preface this by saying, I am not 100% certain that this is every supercenter in the area but it is at least most of them.

County Agency Location Number of calls
hillsborough Hillsborough County Sheriff Office 2701 E Fletcher Ave Tampa FL 33612 937
pinellas Pinellas Park Police Department 8001 Us Highway 19 N Pinellas Park FL 33781 712
hillsborough Tampa Police Department 1505 N Dale Mabry Hwy Tampa FL 33607 697
pinellas Pinellas County Sheriff Office 3801 Tampa Rd Oldsmar FL 34677 658
pasco Pasco County Sheriff Office 12610 Us Highway 19 Hudson FL 34667 647
hillsborough Plant City Police Department 2602 James L Redman Pkwy Plant City FL 33566 623
pinellas St Petersburg Police Department 201 34Th St N St Petersburg FL 33713 586
pasco Zephyrhills Police Department 7631 Gall Blvd Zephyrhills FL 33541 566
hernando Hernando County Sheriff Office 13300 Cortez Blvd Brooksville FL 34613 563
hillsborough Tampa Police Department 19910 Bruce B Downs Blvd Tampa FL 33647 531
hillsborough Hillsborough County Sheriff Office 11110 Causeway Blvd Brandon FL 33511 519
hernando Hernando County Sheriff Office 1485 Commercial Way Spring Hill FL 34606 517
hillsborough Hillsborough County Sheriff Office 9205 Gibsonton Dr Gibsonton FL 33534 513
hernando Brooksville Police Department 7305 Broad St Brooksville FL 34601 487
hillsborough Hillsborough County Sheriff Office 8220 N Dale Mabry Hwy Tampa FL 33614 482
pasco Port Richey Police Department 8701 Us Highway 19 Port Richey FL 34668 459
hillsborough Hillsborough County Sheriff Office 6192 Gunn Hwy Tampa FL 33625 447
pinellas Largo Police Department 2677 Roosevelt Boulevard Largo FL 33760 428
pinellas St Petersburg Police Department 3501 34Th St S St Petersburg FL 33711 428
pasco Pasco County Sheriff Office 8745 State Road 54 New Port Richey FL 34655 405
pinellas Clearwater Police Department 23106 Us Highway 19 N Clearwater FL 33765 392
hillsborough Hillsborough County Sheriff Office 4928 State Road 674 Wimauma FL 33598 386
pinellas Pinellas County Sheriff Office 35404 Us Highway 19 N Palm Harbor FL 34684 274
hillsborough Tampa Police Department 4302 W Gandy Blvd Tampa FL 33611 214
pasco Pasco County Sheriff Office 1575 Land O Lakes Blvd Lutz FL 33549 202
pinellas Tarpon Springs Police Department 41232 Us Hwy 19 N Tarpon Springs FL 34689 192
pinellas Pinellas County Sheriff Office 10237 Bay Pines Blvd St Petersburg FL 33708 173
pasco Pasco County Sheriff Office 28500 State Road 54 Wesley Chapel FL 33543 111
pinellas Largo Police Department 990 Missouri Ave N Largo FL 33770 91
pasco Pasco County Sheriff Office 7631 Gall Blvd Zephyrhills FL 33541 5

* These numbers exclude directed patrols and calls we deemed should be excluded according to our About the reporting section in the article.

Jarrad5x2 karma

Since this is true for my area, are the lesser priced things the most stolen things?(Ex: a coke)

elimurray2 karma

We found that far more people were charged with petit theft than grand theft. In Florida the difference between petit and grand theft is the $300 mark.

ianmac472 karma

The story was great, and the presentation fun and interesting. I saw it shared around and it by the fact that you are here, it must have been something a viral hit. In the era of adblockers, does a viral news story like that earn enough ad revenue for editors to allow you more leeway investigating similar long form stories, or is this just a one-off that is unlikely to lead to more indepth investigative stories?

elimurray4 karma

Thank you for the kind words and for sharing the story! It certainly has gotten some attention, very humbling and exciting to see that kind of affirmation on something we've been working on for nearly a year now.

As to adblockers, and speaking specifically about this project, there weren't any ads on the page. Well, there was one in front of the video but adblocker would not have affected that. As to what other newsrooms are doing, there are ways to detect adblockers and then do something else. I know of a few newsrooms that will detect adblock and pull some fancy magic to inject ads into interstitials on the site.

As for doing more investigations, the Tampa Bay Times has always put a heavy emphasis on watchdog journalism. Those decisions never come down to "Are we going to make money on the story?" but rather "Is this an important story that needs to be told?". So no, I don't think we'll ever stop doing this kind of reporting because it's not profitable - there are other ways to make money and support important journalism.

Truth_Walker1 karma

Did you ever do a comparison of WalMart vs. Other stores in town? A side by side with police calls per every 1000 customers vs. the town gas station or a grocery store?

elimurray1 karma

Yup, there's a whole section in the article comparing police response to Walmart vs Target. You should check it out! www.tampabay.com/walmartcops

Bazydola1 karma

Does anyone have the full estimated total costs for these dispatches for actual police needed calls and less than needed calls? Like cost of fuel for dispatch, wages for calls, cost of processing, etc. Just curious for the Data

elimurray1 karma

No, it's not really possible to track an offender through the legal system and assign a cost for everything. See Laura's comment.

yobrolohoschmo1 karma

How did the graphics happen? They are freaking amazing. I'm computer challenged (except when it comes to certain websites [you know what I mean]) so I have no idea how any of that stuff works but can you tell how the graphics go from idea to fruition?

elimurray3 karma

Thank you so much for the kind words!

We were tossing around a few ideas for the intro graphic and settled on the idea of creating a police dispatch computer with the calls just flowing in. The aesthetic was totally influenced by the Fallout 4 computer terminals ;)

Once we had the idea for the intro, it just seemed appropriate to do the rest of the graphics in a similar style. Big shoutout to Martin Frobisher for taking my crappy d3 code and polishing it til it shone!

horseradishking1 karma

Do you feel like that if someone got robbed, that it's their own fault because they left their door unlocked? That's how I felt after reading your article.

elimurray1 karma

To expand on your analogy, probably not the first time. But if someone left their doors open all day and called police twice an hour, then yes, some of the blame certainly is on them.

Battle_Bear_8191 karma

I've worked for Walmart. As regular employees, we are not allowed to interact in any way with a customer that we find to be stealing. We are told to tell our mangers about it,and then the manager contacts the in-store asset protection. By the time that AP is able to find the customer on camera and verify that they are stealing, it is often too late and the customer is put of the door. This is anecdotal, but one of our in-store security guards was fired for grabbing and holding a shoplifter that walked out the door with a TV.

If you do it fast enough and can get off the property before police arrive, you can take a TV and a computer right off the shelf, put it in a basket, and walk our the door, because nobody is allowed to stop you.

Do you feel like one solution might be more in-store security that are allowed to detain shoplifters? Anecdotally again, we have third party guards on the night shift that have tacked and detained shoplifters several times, and it seems to be working fairly well.

elimurray1 karma

That's a certainly a possible solution. Another is just to approach a person you saw shoplifting and tell them to put it back rather than standing invisibly behind a shelf/computer monitor. I have a hunch that most people would rather put it back than go to jail. There are definitely other solutions and we explored many of them in our article.