What started with an email from target to the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s Shop with a Cop charity in October and a puzzled response that went unanswered has turned into a full-bore and continuing assault on the company by Sheriff Rick Staly, who has been lambasting Target for “talking out of both sides of their mouths” after abruptly severing a 13-year relationship with what had previously been known as Christmas with a Deputy.
It was a stunning turn-around and an unusual position for Target, a company that for years had been identified as one of the most pro-law enforcement companies in the nation. Target’s messaging in this case, however, or at least what there has been of it, has been imprecise and at times contradictory, with the company saying it was ending the program that enabled Shop with a Cop program at its store while still providing the Palm Coast Fire Department’s union—through its benevolent fund, a non-profit— a $5,000 grant as part of the same program.
To ensure that the 125 children in Shop with a Cop would still have their spree, the program hopped across town to Walmart, which had asked for and hosted a smaller version of the event last year, and was the sole provider this year.
After issuing a scalding–and scolding–two-page letter to Target Chairman and CEO Brian Cornell on Dec. 15, charging the company with “an attempt to deceive or influence the public” with “little more than corporate propaganda” about why Target was pulling back, Staly in the last 48 hours has appeared on two right-wing networks at their invitation–One America News, or OAN, and Newsmax, both of which fall well to the right of Fox, which has not extended an invitation–to counter what he sees as the company’s attempt to rewrite history. (Neither OAN nor Newsmax had a Target representative, and neither said whether they’d invited one.)
Target has attributed the broken relationship to “a miscommunication earlier this year resulted in the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office being told that Target was retiring our Heroes & Helpers program,” the program that had paired the Palm Coast store with the Christmas shopping spree that itself pairs local cops with children from less privileged families. The Sheriff’s Office’s charity raised thousands of dollars–nearly $16,000 from within the agency this year, nearly $10,000 from the community–and provided gift cards to the children, who would then buy presents for themselves and their families.
Target did not explain the “miscommunication” to the Sheriff’s Office, nor issue it the statements it has issued others, including a retired police sergeant in Virginia who had been involved in Shop with a Cop there. The sergeant wrote Staly about receiving the same statement, which also refers to an apology issued to the Sheriff’s Office, ostensibly by phone (there is no written apology). The sheriff found out about Target’s various responses through media.
Target officials attempted to meet with Staly after he wrote the company. A meeting was scheduled for Tuesday. Staly cancelled it.
“I think they’re trying to do damage control based on the official statement that they’re sending out to reporters and private citizens that are reaching them,” Staly said in an interview this morning. “I’m not going to let Target Corporation use me for damage control when they shot themselves in the foot.” Before meeting with Target officials in person, he said, he wants the company to respond to his letter. Otherwise, he says the company isn’t being sincere, and would use a meeting with him to make it seem as if the matter was addressed and resolved. “They’re going to try to throw a low-level employee under the bus and blame it on them, and that is just not fair, so I’ll be glad to talk to them if they want to take responsibility.”
Even if a meeting does take place, Staly said he’s not going back to Target. “It would be unfair to Walmart, number one, because they came through and rescued Shop with a Cop for these kids, and they deserve for us to stay with them because of that,” Staly said. Secondly, he said, it would he “hypocritical” of him to return the event to “a company that apparently doesn’t want to support law enforcement or is trying to be politically correct and distance themselves,” though he’d be willing to entertain Target support for other local programs affiliated with the Sheriff’s Office, such as the Police Athletic League.
The claim that Target doesn’t want to support law enforcement or is being political correct is an assumption. The company, from what even Staly has gathered, has continued to provide Shop with a Cop-like events in some stores, including in Florida. In communications with FlaglerLive, a Target spokesperson has said that “While our 2022 programming is not yet finalized, we remain committed to working with partners nationwide to make a lasting impact in the communities we serve. We will have more to share on our 2022 plans next year.” The statement appeared to leave the door open for programming such as Shop with a Cop locally. But the company continues to be cagey both about what caused the severing of ties or its redirection, and has declined a request to make someone available who could answer questions more directly than through statements.
The shopping spree at Target was in preparation earlier this fall, the date was picked out, the contributions were coming in, and the children were being selected, just as had been the case in the previous 13 years. On Oct. 6, Taylor Olander, the security chief at the local Target, emailed Lou Miceli of Shop with a Cop. (See the exchange here.) Olander thanked Miceli for the partnership in the Heroes and Helpers program then wrote that Target was “introducing a new give-back program” that, while expanding its reach, would partner directly with “local non-profit organizations across the country to provide families in need with essentials, gifts and more,” with all 1,900 stores participating. The email made clear: the Heroes & Helpers program was being retired.
Fifteen minutes later Miceli wrote back, “a little lost here,” telling Olander that Shop with a Cop is a non-profit, so “why couldn’t we have done the event?” There was no response. (Olander’s email, which appeared to be standard-issue corporate language that was emailed locally, referred any inquiries to Target’s Corporate Responsibility office.)
The event at Walmart took place the evening of Dec. 10. Staly wrote his two-page letter on Dec. 15, posting it on the agency’s Facebook page with a photo of a Grinch leaning back, arms crossed, against the Target sign in Town Center. The post has been among the page’s most popular, drawing–at last count this morning–4,700 comments and 32,000 shares across the country. The overwhelming majority of comments are critical of Target and supportive of the sheriff (“way to go Rick!), though some criticized the sheriff for “grandstanding” and ” participating in cancel culture.”
The matter caught the attention particularly of right-wing outlets that, like OAN and Newsmax, have framed the issue as part of their anti-“woke” narrative.
“It doesn’t surprise me because so many corporations these days are going woke and then they find out when they start losing money, it’s from woke to broke, and they turn around and change their mind.” OAN’s Dan Ball said to Staly as he opened the 11-minute segment on Dec. 21. OAN is not known for accuracy (and was suspended for a week by YouTube for spreading misinformation): at 10 percent, Target sales growth last month were double that of both Walmart and Amazon, its third quarter revenue was 12.7 percent higher than last year, its stock has risen 26 percent this year, compared with Walmart’s declining 2.6 percent.
While Ball kept pressing the “woke” point, using the word about 10 times, Staly in his interview appeared to steer away from it, focusing instead on what he saw as the company’s doubletalk and insincerity. In his interview this morning the sheriff said he suspected Target was pulling back from involvement with law enforcement for image reasons, noting that the company is headquartered in Minneapolis, home of George Floyd–the Black man whose murder by a white Minneapolis police officer in 2020 thrust Black Lives Matter back to the center of a national debate about race and police brutality, though this time most law enforcement agencies and leaders, including Staly, were supportive of the movement.
“They’re welcome to frame it however they want to frame it,” Staly said of his television interviews. “I think my reply to their questions and my letter speaks for itself, this isn’t about politics to me, it isn’t about right or left, it’s about right or wrong, it’s about corporate responsibility.”
There is a broader context to Target’s changing relationship with police–to the extent that it may be changing. “For decades, Target fostered partnerships with law enforcement unlike those of any other U.S. corporation,” Bloomberg reported in August. Slate had written a similar piece last year. “It became one of the most influential corporate donors to law enforcement agencies and police foundations, supplying money for cutting-edge technology and equipment.” It also paid for neighborhood surveillance systems. “In Minneapolis, Target worked with the City Attorney’s Office to have petty criminals banished from the downtown business district through what are called geographic restriction orders. Eight out of 10 people expelled were Black or American Indian, according to an analysis of city data.” The company basked in the publicity. When its stores were looted after the Floyd murder, it was not necessarily coincidence. A “Loot every target” social media posting has appeared since.
There has been no explicit statements by Target that it was retreating from its police commitments. Like its email to the sheriff’s office, there’s been more suggestion than precision. Last year Target faced claims that it was dropping Shop with a Cop program. A USA Today Fact Check said it wasn’t, but sourced the fact check exclusively on Target’s response–and Target’s then-continuing support for its Heroes & Helpers program. That’s the program Target dropped in October. However imprecise its email to the Sheriff’s Office, or what seemed like indifference when it did not respond to Miceli, the company had unquestionably ended what had made Shop with a Cop possible at its store locally, without providing an alternative to the Sheriff’s Office.
Staly said he has no issue with Target deciding not to support law enforcement, if that’s what it prefers–as long as its states its intentions clearly: “Believe in what you stand for and be willing to say it.” But in his letter he left no doubt about his intentions to attach a price to the company’s actions, or, more startlingly, to use his elected position to exact that price: “I support your right to end our partnership however, it comes with a price; while I doubt it impacts your bottom line you have lost a customer in both my wife and I. Further, I will educate my peers within the law enforcement community about your corporate action and decision. Finally, I will take the opportunity to discuss Target’s position in every public forum with which I have a platform.”
There is a final irony–for now. In his letter to the company Staly had noted the “more than 3,870 calls for service” his deputies have made at the Target store in Town Center since he became sheriff. As an underscore, his public relations office this afternoon issued a release about the arrest of four “career offenders” at Target over shoplifting and drug charges. The name of a business is rarely included in releases’ headlines. This time, Target was prominent.