America’s most criticized retailer once again finds itself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
According to a new study published in the British Journal of Criminology, nationwide drops in crime rates are not as drastic in counties where Walmarts are found. Here’s what lead researcher Scott Wolfe of the University of South Carolina had to say about the finding.
"The crime decline was stunted in counties where Wal-Mart expanded in the 1990s," Wolfe said. "If the corporation built a new store, there were 17 additional property crimes and 2 additional violent crimes for every 10,000 persons in a county."
Wolfe and co-researcher David Pyrooz looked at over 3,000 counties in their study. They consistently found that counties with Walmart’s had slightly higher rates than similar matched counties without.
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Simply put, “A Walmart-crime relationship exists,” Wolfe says.
Wolfe and Pyrooz openly admit that the study does not make any concrete claims about how Walmart’s presence might make an area’s crime rates rise. They do have theories, though.
“There are reasons why Wal-Mart ranks among the most successful commercial enterprises in U.S. history," Wolfe says. “They are very strategic about where they build stores.”
Communities across the country reject proposals for new Walmart locations all the time. The city of Green Bay, Wisconsin did so just three weeks ago. These communities use their existing economic power and social capital to reject a new store’s presence. Often times, Pyrooz speculates, communities that Walmart builds in lack the social capital to turn down the store.
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"Counties with more social capital—citizens able and willing to speak up about the best interests of the community—tend to have lower crime rates," Pyroz says. "Counties with more crime may have less social capital and, therefore, less ability to prevent Wal-Mart from building."
Wolfe cautions that more research is absolutely needed before people start running around claiming Walmart causes crime.
“Does it reduce community social cohesion or simply increase opportunities for theft and other crimes in specific store locations that are great enough to influence county crime rates?” Wolfe asks. “These are questions that remain."
As you’d expect, Walmart representatives are dismissing the study. Spokesperson Diana Gee said the rise in property crimes – a category of crime which includes theft and shoplifting – is due to Walmarts efficient theft prevention tactics.
“Our asset protection associates do a phenomenal job in identifying those who try to steal from us, so often times a higher number of shoplifting incidents is just an example of how well they are doing their job," Gee said. "It doesn't mean the crime wasn't taking place before. It just means more shoplifters are being caught.”
Nevertheless, as the researchers point out in their abstract section, the study raises some very real concerns for communities deciding whether or not to welcome Walmart into their communities.