Big N.Y.C. retailers unveil 'bill of rights' to prevent racial profiling

Several large department stores in New York, including Macy's and Barneys, have signed on to a 'customers' bill of rights' to try to address recent customer complaints of racial profiling by store employees or NYPD police.

John Minchillo/AP/File
Shoppers crowd the entrance to Macy's Herald Square flagship store in New York during Thanksgiving weekend. Several New York City retailers agreed Dec. 9 to sign on to a 'customers' bill of rights' after customers at Macy's and Barneys alleged this fall that they were racially profiled while shopping there.

Major retailers in New York City, collaborating with the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights advocates, released a customers’ bill of rights on Monday in response to several accusations of racial profiling in recent months at stores in the Big Apple.

The one-page bill of rights will be displayed in stores such as Barneys, Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and the Gap, and it will include phone numbers for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, the state Division of Human Rights, and the manager of each store that posts it.

The document “strictly prohibits unreasonable searches and/or the profiling of customers by any employee,” and requires that a person should be detained only if an employee “has reasonable grounds” to believe that the person was in criminal possession of “an anti-security item” or “was committing or attempting to commit shoplifting on the premises.”

At a news conference Monday, the Rev. Mr. Sharpton said he hopes the signs will go up this week.

Retailers in New York City have been under rising pressure from civil rights groups, such as the National Action Network, after three customers filed suit against Barneys and Macy’s, accusing the stores of singling them out for suspicion because they are black or Hispanic.

The New York attorney general’s office and the city’s Human Rights Commission are conducting parallel investigations into the allegations and, more broadly, into the stores' security practices, The New York Times reported Monday.

Barneys and Macy’s have denied engaging in racial profiling, saying that the New York Police Department was at fault. However, an NYPD spokesman maintains that detectives involved in the incidents were responding to information given to them by the department stores' employees, the New York Daily News reported in late October.

The new articulation of customers' rights is a step in the right direction, Sharpton said Monday, but it doesn’t address the whole problem.

“The policies in place are not adequate,” agreed Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president and the city's comptroller-elect, who took part in meetings with store officials to craft the new customers’ bill of rights. “We have a lot more work to do,” Mr. Stringer said, according to The New York Times.

Sharpton and Stringer have asked to meet with incoming Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, according to media reports.

In November, HBO television actor Robert Brown filed suit against the NYPD and Macy’s after three men, whom Mr. Brown believes to be NYPD officers, stopped him in the middle of the store and accused him of credit-card fraud. 

"They cuff me, parade me around the store, all the while maintaining, 'we do this all the time, it's a fake card, you're going to go to jail,' " Brown said on Oct. 29 while recounting the incident on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360." The incident reportedly happened in June. 

The new customers’ bill of rights requires plainclothes officers to identify themselves when approaching shoppers. 

Brown came forward after a young black man, Trayon Christian, filed suit in mid-October against Barneys and the NYPD. Mr. Christian said he was stopped by police and briefly held after buying an expensive belt at Barneys New York last spring.

Kayla Phillips, who also was moved to come forward after hearing Christian’s story, told the New York Daily News that police surrounded her outside Barneys after she bought a $2,500 handbag using a debit card. According to reports, police let Ms. Phillips go after she presented identification along with her credit card.

Barneys publicly apologized for the two incidents and launched an internal review.

Macy’s spokesman Ed Goldberg said the company understands the gravity of Brown's accusations. The retailer supports the customers' bill of rights and “looks forward to welcoming everyone as a customer at Macy’s,” he told the New York Post. 

Brown’s lawyer is skeptical about steps the retailer has taken so far. 

“I think it’s a marketing ploy,” John Elefterakis said to The New York Times. “We don’t believe that this is a solution. We’re moving forward with our lawsuit" against Macy’s. 

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