Politics & Government

Wal-Mart approval hangs on crime worries

Crime is surfacing as a major concern at a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for north Clovis and may prompt the City Council to limit the store's hours.

The proposed shopping center at Herndon Avenue near Highway 168 would include Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, Petco and Old Navy. But it was the Wal-Mart store that drew the most comments during a packed six-hour hearing before the Clovis City Council that began Monday night and didn't end until early Tuesday morning.

The City Council will resume its discussion of the project Oct. 15.

Many of those speaking complained about Wal-Mart's benefits, employment practices, the potential noise and air pollution, and suggested that Clovis could do better than a discount superstore.

But the issue that caught the council by surprise was crime at the existing Wal-Mart store at Peach and Shaw avenues in Clovis and the possibility that the new store could become a crime magnet.

Clovis police Capt. Janet Davis recommended the new store be closed from midnight to 5 a.m. to reduce crime at a proposed 228,000-square-foot store.

Davis said Monday night that the existing Wal-Mart store, which is not open 24 hours, received more than double the number of calls for police service in the past two months than either of the city's two Target stores or Kmart. Four of the calls were felony battery reports and one was a robbery. There were none at the other stores, she said.

Council members said Tuesday that crime concerns will weigh heavily in their decision about whether to allow the Wal-Mart to remain open around the clock. Some also questioned whether Clovis needs a 24-hour general merchandise store.

"I think they really need to work to make sure the Police Department is satisfied or realize we will not allow for the 24-hour Wal-Mart," Clovis Mayor Bob Whalen said.

Council Member Harry Armstrong said he can't imagine residents going to the store in the wee hours of the morning to buy children's clothing or cosmetics.

"We are not a large industrial area where people work around the clock," he said. "If we were in the Bay Area or Southern California it may be different, but this is Clovis."

Council Member Nathan Magsig said the crime statistics for the Shaw and Peach avenues store surprised him and that an around-the-clock store twice the size of the existing Wal-Mart raises concerns.

"It has not been made clear to me why there needs to be a 24-hour use," he said.

Overnight parking, which Clovis police say has contributed to the crime at the existing Wal-Mart store, will be prohibited at the new store. Clovis officials decided to prohibit overnight parking to allay concerns of neighbors, who feared it could draw crime and undesirable campers.

Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Rios said the company still wants a 24-hour operation because customers want it. He also said the police analysis was not scientific.

Wal-Mart trains it staff to watch for crime and call police if they believe they see a problem, and that could have skewed the Police Department's figures, he said.

"We would rather overcompensate to make sure we have a safe environment for our customers," Rios said.

Wal-Mart officials will discuss the findings with police, he said.

Other Valley cities that have 24-hour Wal-Mart supercenters said they haven't seen a substantial increase in crime resulting from the stores. Hanford and Dinuba have had supercenters open 16 months, while Sanger's opened three months ago.

In Hanford, the Wal-Mart Supercenter has more calls for police service than the Target store, which is open 14 hours a day, 13 hours on Sunday.

Hanford police Capt. Darrell Smith said the supercenter produces 23.85 calls for service a day on average compared with 14.1 calls a day at Target. But, Smith said, the calls have been mostly for minor crimes, such as shoplifting, vagrants and disturbances, and Wal-Mart security officers "have been great to work with."

"It's no different than any other part of the business district in town," Smith said.

Sanger Police Chief Tom Klose said theft was a problem initially, but Wal-Mart security quickly addressed the issue.

Dinuba City Manager Ed Todd said most issues that come up are traffic- related and seldom occur during overnight hours. Few people are at the store late at night, which minimizes problems for police or Wal-Mart security officers.

"They control the inside and the outside is patrolled pretty well," Todd said.