Retailer Target Branches Out Into Police Work

Computer screens at Target's forensics lab promote its ties with law enforcement.
Computer screens at Target's forensics lab promote its ties with law enforcement. (By Ben Garvin For The Washington Post)
By Sarah Bridges
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 29, 2006

When arson investigators in Houston needed help restoring a damaged surveillance tape to identify suspects in a fatal fire, they turned first to local experts and then to NASA. With no luck there, investigators appealed to the owner of one of the most advanced crime labs in the country: Target Corp.

Target experts fixed the tape and Houston authorities arrested their suspects, who were convicted. It was all in a day's work for Target in its large and growing role as a high-tech partner to law enforcement agencies.

In the past few years, the retailer has taken a lead role in teaching government agencies how to fight crime by applying state-of-the-art technology used in its 1,400 stores. Target's effort has touched local, state, federal and international agencies.

Besides running its forensics lab in Minneapolis, Target has helped coordinate national undercover investigations and worked with customs agencies on ways to make sure imported cargo is coming from reputable sources or hasn't been tampered with. It has contributed money for prosecutor positions to combat repeat criminals, provided local police with remote-controlled video surveillance systems, and linked police and business radio systems to beef up neighborhood foot patrols in parts of several major cities. It has given management training to FBI and police leaders, and linked city, county and state databases to keep track of repeat offenders.

The efforts are part of a trend in corporate donations directed at solving societal problems. "Target is pushing forward a different model of corporate giving," said Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Council. Others are doing the same. Exxon Mobil, for example, is building hospitals in the developing world. Cargill Corp. is building schools in areas where potential employees lacked basic skills.

Target's law enforcement efforts date back at least a decade but intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The company has applied in-store practices, such as inventory-tracking technologies, to the business of identifying and locating criminals. "In many ways, Target is actually a high-tech company masquerading as a retailer," said Nathan K. Garvis, Target's vice president of government affairs.

Some people note the possible ethical complexities inherent in Target's tight government relationships. "It is a tricky issue when firms get too close to government," said Ernesto Dal Bó, assistant professor of business and public policy at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. Dal Bó sees such alliances as fraught with potential conflicts, though he cautions against alarm. "There is no reason we need to say that anything bad is happening, but we do need to watch," he said.

It is typical for big companies, especially retailers, to coordinate with law enforcement in safeguarding their properties. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, takes a "one store at a time" approach, in which bicycles and other gear are given to law enforcement agencies in need, spokeswoman Sharon Weber said. "We are also very proud of our outreach program with police in some cities," she said. "We teach kids the true consequences of shoplifting."

Target's approach is more comprehensive. Target has replaced the concept of "assets protection" in its stores with crime prevention in the community. A program called "Target and Blue" defines its approach to philanthropy and partnership with law enforcement agencies.

Chief executive Robert J. Ulrich made cooperating with law enforcement a priority in the mid-1990s, when crime rates skyrocketed and his hometown of Minneapolis was nicknamed "Murderopolis."

"The turning point occurred for me when I read about a repeat offender walking out of the courtroom because the judge didn't know he had a criminal record in a different part of the state," Ulrich said in an interview. "He raped a woman the next day." Ulrich slapped the table. He said he wanted to know how the man got out of jail so fast.

Ulrich assigned Garvis to figure that out, and he began by interviewing police, judges and politicians to understand why one branch of law enforcement may not have access to another agency's records. He learned that city, county, state and federal criminal record systems had different ways of entering data and couldn't routinely share information.

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