JOPLIN, Mo. — Wal-Mart’s new approach to shoplifting is up and running in Joplin.

People who have a clean record but who are caught shoplifting are being offered a choice by Wal-Mart’s security staff: They can admit guilt and pay $400 to take an online “restorative education” course; or the police will be called.

Offenders unable to pay the money up front have the option of paying $500 for the course in installments. 

If the offender fails to pay the fee or finish the online class, Wal-Mart forwards its record of the crime to the police, who have agreed to press charges based on that information.

Dubbed the “Restorative Justice Program,” the new plan replaces a program designed by the Joplin Police Department to reduce officer visits to big box stores. A spokesman for Wal-Mart said that “Restorative Justice” would also serve to reduce police calls. 

The high volume of shoplifting-related calls from large retailers poses a challenge to the department’s mission of patrolling the entire city, not just a few parking lots. 

“(Large retailers) are a challenging environment for us,” said Capt. Bob Higginbotham. “We go to Wal-Mart because they’re catching people all the time. They’re very proactive, and they do their job.”

Squad cars in Joplin filed 512 reports at Wal-Mart’s two Supercenters in 2015 alone, according to figures provided by the department. Most were related to shoplifting. When Joplin officers responded to a crime last year, they headed to those two stores 6 percent of the time.

In 2013, the department approached large retailers in the area — among them Kohl’s, Sears, J.C. Penney, Target and Wal-Mart — with a proposal.

After apprehending a shoplifter, security staff would submit shoplifting reports directly to the police through an online portal. Rather than send a squad car to the store, the department could use the information to send a citation and a court date to the offender by mail.

Several stores agreed to participate — Wal-Mart even developed a separate website for submitting reports. But with Wal-Mart’s departure, zero retailers remain in the program.

That’s not because it wasn’t working, according Lacey Baxter, the Joplin officer who has served as a liaison for the program.

“I thought the online program was working well,” she said. “We were doing a lot of the reports online. Even if we did respond to Wal-Mart, some of the paperwork was already complete. It was a faster process.” 

Baxter said other retailers did not explain why they dropped the program.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company chose to expand the Restorative Justice Program after its success in reducing calls to law enforcement from several pilot stores. 

“We made a decision that if the overall goal is for us to try and reduce calls to police, the Restorative Justice Program allows us to not call the police at all and process the offender right on the spot,” said Brian Nick, senior director for corporate affairs at Wal-Mart. “(The program) has become more robust in the last month, and since the beginning of the summer, we’ve added hundreds of stores. It’s been a steady pace. The trend is continuing into additional markets.”

Promotional materials for the Restorative Justice Program, sent to Joplin police by Wal-Mart to announce the shift, state the program has resulted in 36% fewer calls to law enforcement from stores where it was implemented thus far.

Data measuring the change in calls since the program arrived in Joplin this past July are not yet available.

The program is “100 percent offender funded,” according to materials also sent to Joplin police by a company called Corrective Education Company.

Wal-Mart and other retailers may be reimbursed for “collecting the data and processing all offenders through the proprietary CEC reporting process,” according to CEC, but they are not paid based on the number of offenders who go through the training.

Joplin stores

After piloting at several stores in 2014, the program has been expanded in recent months to one third of Wal-Mart locations nationwide, including both of its Joplin Supercenter locations.

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