The retail industry has been particularly vulnerable to increases in violence and crime that have rocked the country amid political and social upheaval, homelessness, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), since the pandemic began there have been increased reports of retail workers being verbally assaulted, spit on, and physically attacked. At least 400 workplace violence events related to COVID-19 were reported in the media between March 1 and October 31, 2020, according to the CDCP. Twenty-seven percent involved non‑physical violence, 27 percent involved physical violence, and 41 percent involved physical and non-physical violence. Most occurred in retail and dining establishments and were perpetrated by a customer or client.
Of the more than 2 million assaults reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies across the country in 2020, more than 82,000—about 4 percent—were at shopping malls, convenience stores, and similar locations.
It’s a harsh and disturbing trend, adding pressure to retailers that are already dealing with record shrinkage, organized retail crime, cybersecurity, and volatile economic conditions. Nonetheless, retailers are challenged to find ways to make their stores secure and their customers and employees feel safe.
Michael Limauro, LPC, vice president of global asset protection at Whole Foods Market, said a big turning point for him occurred after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. After the horrible incident, he watched the news as protestors looted stores and burned down buildings in Minneapolis and across the country. The violence was shocking, and as the person responsible for protecting Whole Foods Market’s assets, Limauro knew he needed to take an innovative approach.
To help develop a strategy, he reached out to Ted Fancher III, LPC, divisional director of asset protection and safety at Whole Foods Market. The two were facing a daunting challenge. Amid the turmoil, many people, including retail workers, called for more armed security guards and police officers. But Limauro and Fancher wanted to go in a different direction.
“We both knew it didn’t make sense to add more cops with guns in an environment where people are already upset about that,” Limauro said. “Things are so different than they were even five years ago, yet many retailers are deploying the same loss prevention strategies. We needed to figure out how to reduce crime and keep team members and customers safe, while also understanding and representing the communities in which we do business.”
The pair connected with We Push for Peace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that serves as a resource and advocate for underprivileged youth. The nonprofit provides employment and job training, along with mental health and substance abuse services. As part of their unique partnership, We Push for Peace, founded by Trahern Pollard, provides Whole Foods with local, independent contractors who help build relationships between the stores and their respective neighborhoods and, in the process, reduce and deter crime and create a sense of community.
The idea is someone who lives in the community can diffuse a potentially dangerous situation or prevent a crime because they often know or have a relationship with the perpetrator. This approach also avoids the built-in tension that can arise when an armed guard or police officer interacts with a suspect.
“If there are unruly folks, we engage with them,” Pollard said. “Our objective is to get them the services they need versus calling 911 because they stole a bag of potato chips. We want to make sure they don’t come back to Whole Foods to steal, but we don’t want them to go anywhere else to steal either.”
Limauro stressed that We Push for Peace employees serve as “peace officers”—not security guards—who greet and interact with customers. If a disturbance arises, their objective is to de-escalate the situation rather than physically intervene or detain the person.
He said this approach was particularly successful during the pandemic’s mask mandate. While there were countless stories about brawls and fights, Limauro said because We Push for Peace’s employees often knew Whole Foods, customers, there was less tension and pushback when customers were reminded to wear masks.
Fancher said this community-based strategy is a powerful alternative that resonates with him personally. He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he often saw armed guards at school and in neighborhood stores, which he believes can send the wrong message and even alienate the public.
Whole Foods Market’s partnership with We Push for Peace is a “softer, more engaging, and conversational approach,” Fancher said. He added it also helps break the damaging cycle of “placing people in the criminal system hamster wheel,” where young offenders are often jailed for minor offenses that can send them down a path of more crime and hopelessness.
He also acknowledged that many retailers might see this approach as controversial as it goes beyond the historical approach. “It takes a very courageous organization to allow us to do this kind of work. We’re excited to try another approach. In the end, we need to get to the root of the problem and stop the repetitive cycle that we’re in.”
A Powerful Partnership
Pollard started We Push for Peace about eight years ago while working as a bus driver for the city of Minneapolis. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago around troubled young men and women, the same kind of kids he often encountered while driving a bus. “I started a nonprofit in order to give back in some way,” he said.
We Push for Peace initially focused on gun and gang violence outreach, including intervening before conflicts escalated. During this time, Pollard often heard young people complain about how previous arrests prevented them from getting jobs and turning their lives around.
Pollard launched a work-readiness program through We Push for Peace that helps young people with things like developing a resume, filling out a job application, improving interview skills, and even ensuring they have professional attire. The organization also has a commercial driver’s license program with on-site classrooms and driver training.
We Push for Peace’s focus expanded in 2020 following the George Floyd murder. While Pollard was sickened by the brutality, he also was disturbed by the aftermath. “I felt that it was morally wrong for individuals to be so destructive and trash businesses,” he said. “They were taking jobs away from hardworking people.”
Pollard said he assembled a group of men and women to help protect some of the local businesses, which is how We Push for Peace first connected with Whole Foods in 2021. Since then, the partnership has expanded, with Pollard opening new training centers and using referrals from the young people he works with to recruit other employees.
Fancher said We Push for Peace is now one of Whole Foods’ top security vendors in the Midwest, due largely to the nonprofit’s innovative approach to connecting Whole Foods to the community. “We’re real proud that store teams and regional leadership think that much of the program,” he said. “Our folks are really connected to it.”
And scaling the partnership is no easy task, as Pollard must go to each new city, where he recruits and trains workers. Pollard often reaches out to organizations like churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, and YMCAs to connect with young people who might be interested in working for the nonprofit. Oftentimes, these are disadvantaged kids with no work experience. We Push for Peace offers them job training and the opportunity to further their financial future.
Today, some eighty We Push for Peace employees are working with Whole Foods locations throughout the Midwest, including cities in Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, with plans for expansion. Their work has also been recognized by the White House, and they work to advise the administration on grass roots movements across the country.
“So many people are facing a lack of resources, employment, and food, and they turn to violence and crime,” Pollard said. “We’re able to provide sustainable, livable wage opportunities with the organization and help them give back to their communities.”
Training Future Asset Protection Professionals from the Community
As part of its strategic partnerships, Whole Foods is also helping to train future AP professionals. In early 2022, Limauro partnered with Harlem CoLab, a workforce development service program that teaches technical and digital skills to people of color and other underserved populations. Harlem CoLab also has a new internship program for individuals seeking tech-related training and certification in AP and other disciplines.
As an example, last year, Harlem CoLab connected Whole Foods with Nishi Akter to do a paid internship. Akter was born and raised in Bangladesh, moved with her family to the United States in 2013, and settled in the Bronx. While she struggled with differences in language and culture, she excelled academically and received scholarships and financial aid to attend Fordham University.
Akter completed a 12-week internship at Whole Foods last year, said Dennis Morgan, the founder and president of Harlem CoLab. The internship focused on the technology aspect of AP, including occupational safety reporting, data analytics, and determining where and how loss is happening.
As part of the internship, Morgan said Harlem CoLab helped Akter improve her interview skills and feel more comfortable and confident in professional work settings. The organization also offered social and emotional support, something Morgan said is often overlooked in corporate America. Moreover, Akter had the opportunity to interact with top-level leadership and executives at Whole Foods and get an inside look at how the company operates.
“There’s a great synergy between the Whole Foods AP team and Harlem CoLab, and we’re able to really put people like Akter on a solid career path,” Morgan said. “The experience really opened her mind and gave her the confidence to believe in herself and her capabilities.”
Limauro said he’s excited for Whole Foods to expand its partnership with Harlem CoLab and give more young people like Akter a chance to succeed. “We’re able to bring smart, talented people with diverse backgrounds into our program at Whole Foods, and we’re really proud of that,” he said. “It’s helping communities and at the same time it’s also helping Whole Foods.”
Multiple Layers of Protection
Limauro said Whole Foods’ new approach to asset protection is “ultimately about embedding ourselves into the community and helping create an environment where residents feel a sense of ownership in our stores. People connect on a different level because they’re all from the same geography and have the same understanding.”
He’s also quick to point out that police and security guards are still “layered into our asset protection” strategy in different areas of the country. “I don’t believe in silver bullets,” Limauro said. “I don’t think any one thing works.”
And having multiple layers of protection and security is often necessary, especially as the country continues to wrestle with complex issues, which are often intertwined with drug addiction and mental health.
“We are seeing more problems with disruptive individuals,” Limauro explained. “And the problem is often dropped on the shoulders of retailers. Whole Foods welcomes anybody and everybody into our stores. We don’t just sell groceries, we’re a meeting place, where people have meals together or a glass of wine. But if someone is causing problems or disrupting customers, we have to deal with the situation and remove them from the area.”
To address these challenges, Whole Foods also works with an international organization called ALTO, which specializes in strategic community partnerships to solve disruptive issues affecting retail stores.
“We partner with clients to figure out what is disrupting their business, what is causing their employees and their customers to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and then we work with stakeholders to mitigate that issue,” said Rhett Asher, ALTO’s vice president of community relations and partnerships.
Recently, Whole Foods partnered with ALTO to deal with a situation in Venice, California, where the grocer is located next to an abandoned commercial building that, for years, attracted criminal activity.
“It was a negative element that was affecting Whole Foods and a lot of other stores in the area,” said Asher. “And unless there was some sort of violence, law enforcement wouldn’t really step in because it was private property. These kinds of situations go unchecked all across the country, especially these days.”
Asher said ALTO connected with the property owner as well as city officials and successfully acquired permits and authorizations to resolve the situation. “Crime started to drop immediately,” Limauro said.
“Whole Foods’ community-guarding approach fits right in with what we do because we don’t look at every issue that’s disrupting business as necessarily intentional criminal activity,” Asher said. “We look at the root cause of the issue as opposed to just the surface level, because oftentimes there are a lot of underlying causes.”
“It may be controversial, and it may be a different approach, but it’s also successful,” Fancher said. “There’s a level of humility and vulnerability to pivot and try something new—to step back and say, ‘The old way of doing things isn’t working, so we’re going to take it in a whole new direction.’ We may make mistakes, and the industry might not applaud us right off the bat, but there’s no arguing that we’re seeing positive results.”
Already known for its superlative asset protection programs, Whole Foods forged partnerships that helped the retailer implement community-based strategies for asset protection. While unorthodox and counter to what many in the retail industry are doing, Whole Foods’ new approach has proven successful, with marked reductions in crime and better connectivity with the people and communities the company serves.