EL PASO, Texas - Walmart has quietly hired off-duty officers at its stores in El Paso, Texas, where a gunman police say targeted Mexicans opened fire in a store in August and killed 22 people.
The retail giant reopened the store where the attack happened Thursday amid ongoing lawsuits over security on the day of the attack, when Walmart didn't have a guard at the store.
About 50 shoppers lined up early to enter the renovated location, and they streamed past dozens of sheriff's deputies, security guards and store employees once the doors opened. Workers greeted the shoppers with cheers of "Welcome back to Walmart!"
Police say Patrick Crusius drove more than 10 hours from his grandparents' house where he lived in a Dallas suburb to carry out the attack. Crusius, 21, has pleaded not guilty. More than 3,000 people from largely Latino El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, were at the store when the attack happened.
"There was a time that Walmart hired off-duty officers and for some time prior (to) August 3rd that ceased," El Paso police spokesman Enrique Carrillo said in an email. He declined to provide more details.
When Police Chief Greg Allen first revealed the phasing out of officers during a City Council meeting, council members discussed possibly requiring that off-duty officers be hired at large stores, though the idea hasn't been implemented.
Instead, Walmart quietly started hiring off-duty officers at their stores throughout the city, from its sprawling Supercenters to its smaller neighborhood grocery stores.
"We're covering Walmarts, we're also covering Sam's (Club)," said El Paso police union president Ron Martin. "Even the neighborhood Walmarts are being covered. Some of them are being covered by sheriff's deputies, some of them are being covered by our guys. I mean, I have seen some constables working it."
Martin said it's unclear how long Walmart will continue to staff every location.
The off-duty officers are paid about $50 per hour, depending on their rank, which is about double the officers' full-time hourly wage.
Walmart officials declined to discuss the hiring of police officers, the costs, or if the company is taking similar steps in other cities.
"We typically do not share our security measures publicly because it could make them less effective, but they may include hiring additional security, adding cameras in store and using `lot cops' in the parking lot," said Walmart spokeswoman Delia Garcia, referring to security cameras placed in parking lots. "We will continue our long-standing practice of regularly evaluating our staffing, training, procedures, and technology which are designed to provide a safe working and shopping experience."
John Furner, Walmart CEO for its U.S. business, said on the company's earnings call Thursday that workers at the El Paso store had weighed in and wanted the location reopened.
"We listen to our associates," said Furner, who attended the reopening. "They want to get back to a normal way of life."
Some victims are suing Walmart over the lack of security on the day of the attack, arguing that the company's method of evaluating security boils down to an inadequate algorithm.
Many more are still dealing with the shared trauma.
Manuel Hernandez, 91, went to the reopened Walmart on Thursday to see other people's reactions as they entered the building. He sat at the McDonald's inside the store and sipped a cup of coffee as he reflected on the shooting.
"This is kind of an emotional thing that I just really do not understand. I cannot cope with it," Hernandez said, referring to the attack. "What if, right this moment, someone comes in with a machine gun in hand? What would I do?"
Construction workers have broken ground on a permanent memorial in the store's parking lot, a "Grand Candela" that will be about 30 feet (9 meters) tall and could be finished in as little as three weeks.
The reopening of the El Paso store also comes as Walmart has dipped its toe into the gun debate. It plans to post signage with its new policy discouraging customers from openly carrying guns. But it is not banning them.
A month after the mass shooting in El Paso, Walmart announced that it planned to phase out sales of certain kinds of ammunition in its stores.
The move will reduce its market share of ammunition from around 20% to less than 10%, according to Walmart. About half of its more than 4,750 U.S. stores sell firearms, but they account for only 2% of guns sold in the U.S. Most are sold through thousands of unaffiliated gun shops or gun shows, not big retail chains.