Roanoke for generations has been known as a charming city – “The Star City of the South” – with friendly people and safe streets. When TV news brought images of rioting and mass crime in larger urban areas in other parts of the nation, many here would utter a “Thank goodness I don’t live there” thought or prayer.
However, as reported here, on a per capita basis, Roanoke City has the dubious distinction of being the #2 Crime Capital of Virginia. As of mid-April 2023, the City had had five murders, making that a rate of more than one killing per month.
In a non-violent yet still disturbing display, another sign of pathology has been seen in Roanoke City Walmarts where many daily items are now under lock and key, requiring an employee to get them.
This was observed at the Southeast Walmart on Dale Avenue in early 2023 where one shopper who wanted to buy the most basic items (disposable razors, soaps and other common health accessories) discovered they were locked up. After encountering a sign that said “Ring Bell for Assistance,” the shopper waited several minutes until a somewhat frazzled-looking clerk arrived to open the case. She apologize for the delay and said she and other employees were all very busy.
Obviously, making employees respond to each request to open a case for the most basic personal hygiene products will make them even busier. When asked the reason for the lock, she replied that shoplifting had been on the increase.
A May 15 visit to the Valley View Walmart had this same shopper looking for another basic item: a dog flea collar. (Interestingly, cat collars were on an open shelf but dog collars were locked up.) Looking for an employee, the shopper first saw a male clerk on the next aisle over, but in the food section. Asking for help, that employee apologized but said since he wasn’t assigned to the pet department, he couldn’t help.
The shopper asked him, “So am I supposed to wander around until I find an employee with a key?” Chuckling, he responded “Yeah.”
That shopper then found three female employees together at the front of the store. Asking for help, one lady offered to assist but said none of them had a key. So, she went to find another female clerk who did have a key.
Taking the key, she led the shopper to the dog collar case. The shopper asked her, “Why are dog collars locked up?” She responded that, “expensive things that are about $30 and up are locked up” and added that shoplifting is a growing problem.
Thanking her, the shopper took the $4.00 dog collar and checked out. The episode took about five minutes and involved five employees.
Compared to major crimes and violence, these situations may seem minor or harmless. Granted, it’s unremarkable that high-dollar items like electronics, jewelry etc. have been kept in locked cases for as long as anyone can remember. However, inexpensive items like razors, facial cream and pet supplies being kept under lock and key is an unfortunate first for Roanoke.
Moreover, according to the “Broken Windows Theory,” small signs of disorder, if left unchecked, quickly metastasize into larger maladies because they send the message: “No one here cares; anything goes, and no one will stop you.” According to britannica.com, the theory, first set forth in 1982, “used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighborhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime.”
Recent headlines have cited many examples of big retailers closing their stores in crime-infested, Democrat-run cities nationwide. Walmart has announced they will close four of their eight stores in Chicago, and Office Depot, Whole Foods, GAP, Marshall’s, Banana Republic and many others have left Downtown San Francisco since the troubles of 2020.
Since a business’ primary goal is to make a profit, shoplifting and looting make that impossible and thus corporations are forced to close stores in lawless areas. That in turn sets off a negative chain where customers have fewer options for convenient shopping, jobs are lost, prime real estate lies vacant, landlords lose rent, and tax revenues plummet.
As some might put it, considering the rising number of murders, thefts, shootings, and now items being locked up at our local Walmarts, is “The Star City of the South” becoming “The Baltimore of the Blue Ridge”?
Seeking answers to inform our reading community and to give civic leaders an opportunity to give their views on this situation, The Roanoke Star reached out to Walmart, City GOP Chairman Charlie Nave, as well as three City officeholders: Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. (D), Vice Mayor Joe Cobb (D), and Police Chief Sam Roman, who, according to this column, is also now an Assistant City Manager.
Kelsey Bohl with Walmart Media Relations did not answer the questions directly but instead gave this response. “Some products are subject to additional security. Those determinations are made on a store-by-store basis. Walmart will continue to explore additional ways to protect its merchandise, keep prices low and keep product in stock for the millions of customers it serves each week.”
As of publication time, none of the local city officeholders have responded to any of the questions, which are listed below. In contrast to the silence of city officials, Roanoke City GOP Chairman Charlie Nave has given his answers which are shown in bold.
- Most of us should be used to some small, high-priced items such as laptops, ink cartridges etc. being locked up in store shelves. However, recently, the Walmarts in Southeast and at Valley View have had cabinets locked that held routine, daily items, including men’s razors, shaving cream, ladies’ face cream, and even dog flea collars that cost less than $4. Why is this? (For the record, no such locked cases holding routine items have been seen in Roanoke County.) Nave: I wouldn’t be surprised if this is because of a higher rate of unpunished shoplifting in Roanoke City as compared to Roanoke County.
- It takes time to find an employee to unlock cabinets. For this kind of inconvenience, especially when everyone is busy and time is precious, what will stop some shoppers from going to the county or Salem to shop, and thus reduce City tax revenues and possibly demand for employees? Nave: Unpunished shoplifting will hurt the Roanoke City economy as Roanokers find it more convenient to leave the city limits for daily items.
- Those of us who have grown up in Roanoke know this to be a safe, friendly city. Why are we seeing this disturbing trend recently, in just the past few months? Nave: Crime appears to have been rising in Roanoke over the last few years.
- As a Roanoke City leader, what responsibility do you take for this and do you have any statement for our readers about it? Nave: Roanoke needs new elected and appointed leadership. Our current leadership has not been able to get a handle on rising crime.
- Mass shoplifting and overall lawlessness are pathologies we sadly associate with large cities. Is there a plan to push back against this new wave of shoplifting or do you think this is a “new normal” Roanokers need to get used to? Nave: City Council has not even addressed this matter. They appear unconcerned about and disconnected from the daily reality of living in Roanoke.
Since the City has already imposed a plastic bag tax, will the new inconvenience of having to find a clerk to unlock cabinets to get items drive some shoppers outside the City, thus reducing City taxes and demand for employees? Plus, shoplifting cuts a company’s profit margin and thus they drive up prices that consumers have to pay. And is tolerating increased shoplifting a “new normal” most Roanokers want to accept?