In one week alone at the Walmart Supercenter in Stapleton, two men walked off with a paintball gun, another tried to steal a futon and a pair of pillows, and a fourth told a Denver police officer he had no receipt for the 97 items in his shopping cart because “Aw… Um. … Because I didn’t pay for any of this.”

Walmart officials told police this year that the store at 7800 E. Smith Road loses $1.5 million each year to theft, putting it among the top 5 percent of the chain’s locations nationwide for shoplifting. The store is far and away the city’s leading destination for shoplifters, with 283 offenses reported in the past year — 179 more than the second-highest location, a Rite Aid on the 16th Street Mall.

Police officers, frustrated by 841 calls for service at the Stapleton Walmart in the past year, even tried parking empty squad cars in front of the doors as decoys until those, too, became crime victims.

“At the end of the day we pick up the car, and it’s been spit on and kicked, and you can only cry wolf so often,” said Cmdr. Les Perry of the District 5 police station, which inherited coverage of the Walmart when the police district boundary lines shifted in July. Since then, he has met regularly with store managers to strategize against shoplifters. He urges his officers to do foot patrols there when they can.

“It’s too soon to measure what results I’m yielding,” Perry said, adding that the start of the holiday season could bring an uptick. “I’m still seeing my numbers climbing.”

The company’s recent abandonment of zero-tolerance shoplifting policies, and the removal of door greeters who would look out for thieves, could be partly to blame, police said. Walmart no longer prosecutes first-time shoplifters unless they take more than $25 of merchandise and are between 18 and 65. And the chain allows its “asset-protection associates,” who are trained to spot and stop thefts, to hold a shoplifter for police for only an hour. Perry said he is trying to improve response times to the store to deal with that.

Still, other metro-area Superstores aren’t seeing shoplifting on the same scale. The store at 5650 S. Chambers Road in Aurora has clocked 134 reports of shoplifting this year, and Thornton police have handled 108 at the 9901 Grant St. location, which the company told police is the highest-volume Walmart in the state.

Customer volume and location can affect shoplifting rates, Thornton Officer Matt Barnes said.

But the Stapleton Home Depot, a minute away from the Walmart at 3870 N. Quebec St., has reported just 21 shoplifting cases — one-tenth the number at Walmart — in the same yearlong period.

Dianna Gee, a company spokeswoman in Bentonville, Ark., wouldn’t comment on problems or specific security measures at the Smith Road location. Employees there were instructed not to talk to The Denver Post.

Gee said the company’s asset-protection teams work closely with law enforcement to identify trends and develop store-specific safety plans. Those can include adding security cameras, locking high-end merchandise behind glass or protecting it with “spider wrap” devices that sound alarms when tampered.

At the Smith Road store, police have said, cosmetics and small-ticket items have been favored by thieves.

“We’re committed to working with law enforcement in every community,” Gee said.

Even with the cooperation of management, reducing crime at a large retailer has proved a challenge, according to police, who this year offered suggestions that included reconfiguring parts of the store’s layout and having a representative check receipts at the exit.

On a recent afternoon, there were no police “ghost cars” stationed at the doors, but there was a police cruiser with two officers inside. They had just cited a shoplifter.

Asset-protection associates, some in plain clothes, roam Walmart stores, eyeing shoplifters or watching them on surveillance cameras. One employee on Nov. 10 watched a woman hide $79.14 of items in her bag then pass through several registers with no attempt to pay. Police reports show she was allowed to walk outside — and into the waiting handcuffs of a Denver officer who arrested her.

The Smith Road store saw some improvements after police counseled managers on dealing with what Perry called “resurrection cases,” in which thieves try to return items they never purchased in the first place to earn store credit.

The shoplifter who tried to take the futon and pillows on Nov. 8 produced an old receipt for the items and tried to “return” them to get money for bus fare, according to police reports. The next day, a suspect attempted a “no-receipt return” of $47.92 at the customer service counter then left without paying for other items in a cart.

An asset-protection associate stopped the thief and recovered the goods, but police reports show no arrest was made.

“They’d give us six to eight cases at a time,” Perry said. Police urged the store to require identification for such returns, among other suggestions. The store has told him it has saved $70,000 in such fraudulent returns and that “shrinkage” — or loss because of theft — has fallen 14 percent to 17 percent.

Crime has long been a challenge for the nation’s largest retailer, which in 2006 posted theft losses of $3 billion. Neighbors opposed the company’s plans to open a store at East Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard for multiple reasons, including the perception that it would drive up crime in the area.

The company eventually pulled out.

But an equal challenge is striking a balance between protecting a store from criminals and keeping it inviting for law-abiding shoppers, said Joseph LaRocca, former vice president for loss prevention at the National Retail Federation who consults with businesses and police on retail security.

“When they have to lock a product up, when they have to put it in a case, retailers don’t want to take those measures. But they are forced to because of crimes that take place,” he said. “It’s a balance of environmental factors that exist in the store.”

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