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In wake of $600G Macy's settlement, minority shoppers say they're tired of being profiled

BY LAUREN WEBER
STAFF WRITER; Staff writers Collin Nash and Tania Padgett contributed to this story.

January 16, 2005 - Sheila Leslie is a retired New York City police detective, yet she sometimes finds herself on the other side of the security equation: treated with suspicion by sales staff when she's out shopping.

"It's an uncomfortable feeling," said Leslie, 49, an African-American who lives in Huntington. "Just because someone looks a particular way, they shouldn't be targeted or categorized."

And from her vantage point as a retail sales associate, Esther Thornton, also from Huntington, knows for sure that shoplifters come from all ethnic groups.

"I can see who the thieves are and they're not all black," said Thornton, who declined to identify her employer.

Ask Charles Attoh if he's ever been racially profiled and he looks at you like you're crazy.

"Of course," said the 28-year-old Rego Park resident who works for the city Department of Health. " ... Racial profiling is just like walking. When we walk, we just do it. And in stores, when security sees a minority, they say, 'Watch them.'"

Attoh was shopping at Macy's in Herald Square on Friday, the same day the department store chain settled with Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office for $600,000 to resolve allegations that it had targeted black and Latino shoppers in its anti-shoplifting efforts.

Thornton can't recall being tailed in a store and she's never been detained by security, but she wasn't surprised by the Macy's race-profiling allegations. "I believe it happens," she said. "It bothers me."

"I think it is a real issue," said Bronx resident Eduardo DeLeon, who is 29. "I'm not sure if I am being watched because I am a young Latino male or for some other reason."

The Macy's investigation underscored a critical issue for retailers: the challenge of thwarting theft, which cost merchants more than $26 billion in 2002, without impeding customers, or worse, breaking the law through discrimination or other forms of harassment.

A few retailers have been accused multiple times of singling out people of color. Dillard's, the department store chain, has faced lawsuits in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Macy's faced a lawsuit in 2003 from a Bronx paralegal who said she was apprehended solely because she is black.

In a statement on Friday, Macy's noted that it has clear policies prohibiting discrimination and said it will put more resources into making sure employees comply with the rules.

Still, retailers have no choice but to address theft, experts say. Macy's East, which operates 95 Macy's stores, loses $40 million to theft every year. Wal-Mart boasts that it loses less than 1 percent of sales, but that still works out to about $2 billion.

"Merchants are aggressively trying to find ways of cutting cost. One of the logical ways is with preventing theft," said Paco Underhill, founder of retail consulting firm Envirosell.

Some are more creative than others.

Underhill recalls being in a clothing store and hearing a loudspeaker intone, "Security to section 6, security to section 6."

"Were there any security guards there? No. It was just a reminder to customers."

At J&R, the electronics retailer in lower Manhattan, guards are trained to be "exceptionally courteous," said spokesman Abe Brown.

"Anytime the alarm rings, we're extra-sensitive. We try to explain that it may be a mistake and apologize for any convenience."

Sometimes the "kill them with kindness" approach doesn't work.

At malls and stores, guards occasionally use handcuffs to control suspects. That was an issue in the Macy's investigation.

"Sometimes suspected shoplifters will get violent. It's a rare occurrence, but it does happen," said Ken Beckmann, manager of the Sunrise Mall in Massapequa.

The main lesson from last week's settlement? Focus on behavior, not on appearance.

Joe LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation, said merchants need to train their employees to look for certain signals - for instance, a customer who, on a cold winter day, comes in wearing just a T-shirt, looks at jackets and refuses help from salespeople.

He said they should also watch out for shoppers who are looking for cameras or feeling the merchandise for plastic security tags.

However, retailers might do well to start with their own workers.

Of the $26.6 billion in merchandise lost to theft in 2002, $15.8 billion was stolen by employees, according to the federation.

Staff writers Collin Nash and Tania Padgett contributed to this story.


AG Eliot Spitzer on Macy's

From New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer

To be released Friday, January 14, 2005

MACY'S TO STOP EMPLOYEES FROM TARGETING MINORITY CUSTOMERS FOR DISCRIMINATORY SECURITY PRACTICES AND DETENTION

New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer today announced that his office has signed a groundbreaking agreement with Macy's East, Inc., the owner of 29 Macy's Department stores in the State of New York, to ensure that race and ethnicity play no role in Macy's security efforts to identify and process suspected shoplifters. Spitzer's office began probing Macy's security practices in July, 2003 after receiving complaints from black and Latino customers who said they were targeted for particular scrutiny. Black and Latino customers complained of being followed, questioned, and/or searched based solely on their race or ethnicity.

The Attorney General found that the vast majority of persons detained on suspicion of shoplifting were black or Latino, and that their representation in the pool of detainees couldn't be explained either by customer demographics or local crime rates. The very high percentage of blacks and Latinos among detainees at Macy's – over 75% at most of the stores examined – is significantly higher than the percentage of blacks and Latinos shopping in those Macy's stores.

"Store patrons should be allowed to shop unencumbered and free from harassment," Attorney General Spitzer said. "This case demonstrates our resolve in fighting racial discrimination."

Spitzer's office also found unlawful policies and practices with respect to the handcuffing of detainees at Macy's stores. Although the official policy of Macy's is to handcuff detainees only after an individual determination of dangerousness is made, virtually every detainee suspected of shoplifting was handcuffed in a number of New York City stores, regardless of the person's age, size, or behavior. Further, at one upstate store in which security personnel had the discretion to handcuff individual detainees, Latinos were five times more likely and Blacks were nearly times more likely to be handcuffed than white detainees.

Although Macy's has long had a formal written policy banning racial and ethnic profiling, Spitzer's investigation found that Macy's has not adequately monitored the conduct of its security employees so as to prevent and remedy discrimination. Under terms of the agreement with the Attorney General's office, Macy's will pay to the state $600,000 in damages, costs, and attorneys' fees, and will take a number of steps to avoid future discrimination by security employees.

The agreement requires Macy's to:

• Appoint an internal Security Monitor to train, monitor, and investigate complaints about security employees;

• Train security employees and sales associates more extensively on how to avoid discrimination in efforts to detect and prevent shoplifting;

• Hire an outside entity to perform anonymous audits to assess whether security employees treat shoppers differently based on race and/or ethnicity;

• Adopt new record-keeping requirements to enable better tracking of security employees' interaction with customers;

• Permit handcuffing of detainees based only upon individualized assessments of dangerousness;

• Change detention policies and practices to ensure that detentions are reasonable in length and nature;

• Centralize and improve the investigation of complaints about the conduct of security employees; and

• Conduct annual assessments at various Macy's stores to determine if there are any racial disparities in security practices and, if so, take appropriate corrective action.

Macy's has already taken important steps to implement the agreement. The position of Security Monitor has been created and will be filled shortly; new procedures are in place for recording contact between customers and security employees; and new policies regulating handcuffing detainees have been adopted.

Spitzer commended Macy's for cooperating with the investigation and agreeing to changes in policies and procedures that will enable Macy's more effectively to avoid and address discrimination. Spitzer also urged other department stores to reevaluate their own security policies, procedures, and practices, and to revise them as necessary to ensure that shoppers are not targeted for unfavorable treatment based upon their race or ethnicity. The case was handled by Assistant Attorneys General Hilary B. Klein, Brian J. Kreiswirth, and Leah Griggs-Pauly, under the supervision of Bureau Chief Dennis D. Parker and Deputy Bureau Chief Natalie R. Williams of the Attorney General's Civil Rights Bureau.

 

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