Over the past few months, African Americans and Hispanics have come forward about false arrests and aggressive treatment by New York department store employees and police that they say amounts to punishment for “shopping while black.” According to anonymous accounts from New York officials, the state attorney general’s office has received almost a dozen complaints of racial profiling while shopping at Macy’s, and several from minorities shopping at high-end department store Barneys. Now that the attorney general’s office and New York City’s Commission on Human Rights are both investigating the stores’ security practices, these stores and several others have issued a “Customers’ Bill of Rights” that will be publicly posted at stores.
The document “strictly prohibits unreasonable searches and/or the profiling of customers by any employee,” and states that employers may detain shoppers only with “reasonable grounds to believe that the person so detained was guilty of criminal possession of an anti-security item or was committing or attempting to commit shoplifting on the premises.” Punishment for violating the document may include discipline or termination of relevant employees. The document includes the phone numbers for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, the state Division of Human Rights, and the manage of each store. Other participating stores include Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and the Gap.
Public attention to profiling of shoppers escalated after widespread news reports about 19-year-old Trayvon Christian, who said he was detained by police after he walked out of high-end department store Barneys with a $350 Salvatore Ferragamo belt he purchased. According to a lawsuit Christian filed, a clerk who asked him for identification during his purchase had reported that the purchase was fraud, and police held Christian in continued skepticism even after he produced his receipt, the debit card he used to make the purchase, and his identification.
A day later, 21-year-old Kayla Phillips told the New York Post of an almost identical incident when she walked out of Barneys with a $2,500 handbag purchase, and several reports emerged about similar incidents at Macy’s. Actor Ron Brown, who is on the HBO series “Treme,” said he was handcuffed after he bought a $1,000 watch for his mother. Several Hispanic women, including NYPD officer Jenny Mendez, came forward to say they had been wrongfully arrested after purchases at Macy’s.
Macy’s has a history of racial profiling. In 2005, it entered an agreement with the New York attorney general’s office after an investigation found black and Hispanic shoppers were disproportionately stopped on suspicion of shoplifting. But that agreement ended in 2008. For Barneys, the recent reports may be the result of a new store policy that encouraged employees to “take chances” in stopping suspicious people to improve loss prevention.
The epidemic of what is now being called “shop and frisk,” a riff on rampant NYPD “stop-and-frisks” of minorities that a federal judge deemed unconstitutional racial profiling, is likely exacerbated by policies that encourage rather than discourage unsubstantiated stops. But they are not limited to New York or to department stores.
“This happens to me and has happened to me all of my life,” Marketplace Money host Carmen Wong Ulrich, who is Latino and Dominican, said of the recent incidents. “Security follows me, people assume that I’m going to return things — it just happened to me two weeks ago. The assumption is I can’t afford my purchases.”
Even President Obama said after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”