When 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, wearing ear protection and armed with an AK-47 style rifle, approached the packed Cielo Vista Walmart last Saturday, there wasn’t an armed police officer working security there to stop him.
But, there used to be at least one off-duty officer providing security and as many as three when stores expected big crowds, according to police officers and Walmart employees who spoke to El Paso Inc. last week without giving their names.
“Even with one, it could have turned out different,” an El Paso police officer said at the crowded memorial site Thursday evening for the 22 people killed.
“They hired us back this week. If they want us, we’ll be here,” the policeman said in the company of other officers who were providing security at the impromptu gathering area behind the Walmart that has become a shrine to the victims.
El Paso police estimate there were about 2,000 people in the Walmart when the shooting started.
Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the company has its own, unarmed security that primarily watches for shoplifting. He would not say anything about the company’s resumed use of off-duty police officers on an everyday basis in El Paso.
“What I can tell you is we assess on an on-going basis,” Hargrove said. “At the time of the incident last Saturday, we had deployed what we felt was appropriate for that store location.
“That store had had no history that would have indicated anything like what happened last Saturday could have taken place. What we have said is, unfortunately, no retailer is immune or can predict violence or a violent act like that.”
He went on to say, “From our standpoint, it’s why we focus so much on training through our asset protection associates and through other trainings like our active-shooter training program for our associates.”
Since the shooting, off-duty police officers have reappeared at Walmart entrances, but Hargrove wouldn’t say whether it’s a permanent change.
“I wouldn’t want to get into any specific practices that we may have or may not have deployed in the immediate aftermath of what has happened,” he said. “Right now, the biggest focus we’ve had is on our associates in the market and customers in the El Paso community.
“So I wouldn’t want to speculate on what we could do going forward.”
El Paso police officers are routinely hired to provide armed security at stores, theaters and gatherings and are allowed by their union contract with the city to work as many as 25 hours a week, said city spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta.
El Paso Inc.’s calls and email to the police department’s public affairs office inquiring about past arrangements with El Paso Walmart stores went unreturned during what was a very busy week for the department.
Ron Martin, president of the police union and a working officer himself, said officers routinely work security for big-name stores, especially during holidays.
“I don’t know when Walmart started having problems on Black Fridays, but they started hiring them again,” Martin said. “It could be similar to Dillard’s some years ago.
“We used to work at Dillard’s, and it was the same thing. They basically said, ‘You guys are too expensive and we haven’t had a problem. Therefore, we’re going to hire loss prevention officers.’ And that was it.”
Walmart store employees also remember when officers routinely stood guard near store entrances, but none El Paso Inc. spoke with could recall how long ago the arrangement ended.
But one employee at a Westside Walmart who remembered officers at his store also said he’s been with the company for three years.
At the time of the change, he said, employees understood it was a corporate decision to save money that replaced officers with unarmed security personnel dressed in black who are there primarily to watch for shoplifting and prevent altercations in the store.
Asked if employees have been talking about that change in light of the shooter’s attack on the Cielo Vista Walmart, he said, “They’re all talking about it.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.