When stores open their doors to customers, they are inviting all members of the public to come in and spend their hard-earned money. But when those retailers treat certain customers with suspicion solely because of the color of their skin, they are sending a very different message—and breaking the law.
That’s the reason my office has focused on combating retail profiling, which led to a $650,000 settlement with Macy’s to resolve our investigation into more than a dozen complaints of unlawful racial profiling and false detention.
Fifty years after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, there is no place for bias or discrimination in New York. So when my office’s Civil Rights Bureau received complaints that minority customers were being unfairly targeted by Macy’s employees, we took those accusations very seriously.
Nearly two dozen African-American, Latino and other customers at the Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square claimed that loss prevention personnel had apprehended and detained them, though they had done nothing wrong. Customers who did not speak English were not allowed to make phone calls after being accused of credit card fraud or shoplifting, or given access to an interpreter.
During our investigation, former Macy’s employees reported that loss prevention personnel tracked and followed African-American, Latino and other minority customers far more frequently than white customers.
These policies violate the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in public accommodations. And when it comes to profiling, Macy’s was a repeat offender.
In 2005, Macy’s entered into a consent decree with the attorney general’s office after it was found to have violated anti-bias laws, even going so far as to handcuff customers accused of shoplifting. But those practices resurfaced, demonstrating entrenched discrimination. Now, a decade later, Macy’s is learning all over again that racial profiling and other discriminatory practices will not be tolerated.
After an investigation by my Civil Rights Bureau, Macy’s resolved the matter by paying $650,000 in costs, fees and penalties; agreeing to oversight by an independent monitor who will report to my office for the next three years; adopting new policies on anti-profiling and loss prevention detention; training employees on proper investigatory and interview tactics and respect in the event they do detain a customer; and posting a Customers’ Bill of Rights, in English and Spanish, in all 42 Macy’s outlets in New York.
This agreement will secure some measure of justice for Macy’s customers who were victimized and help ensure that, going forward, their civil rights will be protected. But unfortunately, Macy’s is not the only major New York store with a profiling problem.
Just a few weeks ago, Barneys New York entered into an agreement with my office after falsely accusing two African-American customers of credit card fraud. Barneys was found to have imposed excessive surveillance on African-American customers, followed them around the store—even frequent patrons—improperly and disproportionately demanded copies of their receipts from sales associates and disproportionately questioned sales associates about minority customers’ transactions.
Barneys resolved our investigation by paying $525,000 in costs and penalties and agreed to develop anti-profiling and anti-discrimination policies, retrain employees and submit to oversight by an independent anti-profiling consultant.
These cases are part of an ongoing initiative by my office to combat profiling at retail establishments statewide. It is shocking that, in 2014, retailers still feel they can discriminate against certain customers with impunity.
With these two prominent stores now undertaking corrective action, it should send a strong message that racial profiling is unacceptable in New York—and that those who flout the law will pay the price.
My office is committed to protecting everyone in New York from discrimination and ensuring equal justice under law for all.
Eric T. Schneiderman is the New York state attorney general.