Barneys settles racial profiling suit: Is discrimination by retailers common?

Barneys New York, the high-end department store, agreed Monday to pay $525,000 to settle a racial profiling lawsuit in a so-called 'shop-and-frisk' case. This is not the first time.

Mark Lennihan/AP
A shopper stands in front of Barney's, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013 in New York. Behind her construction workers fabricate a gilded enclosure that will contain a holiday display.

Barneys New York, a chic department store famous for crocodile jackets and cashmere throws worth tens of thousands of dollars, agreed to pay $525,000 and hire an antiprofiling consultant Monday to settle a lawsuit in which the luxury retailer was accused of racial discrimination.

According to complainants, the store’s “loss prevention unit” surveilled black and Latino customers with more scrutiny than white customers at the company’s flagship store on Madison Avenue – a practice that critics say may be widespread in US department stores.

As a result, say plaintiffs in the so-called "shop-and-frisk" case, minority customers are disproportionately detained on suspicion of crimes like shoplifting and credit card fraud.

The recently settled suit stems from a pair of October 2013 incidents involving two black customers of the store: Trayon Christian, 19, and Kayla Phillips, 21.

According to the 27-page lawsuit, Mr. Christian purchased a $350 Salvatore Ferragamo belt with his debit card, but was stopped and detained by police officers blocks from the retailer, after they questioned his ability to pay for the item. Christian was held for two hours before being released.

In a similar incident, Ms. Phillips said she was detained after legally purchasing a handbag costing more than $2,000.

“They were very rough,” said Phillips of the four officers that arrested her in an interview with the Daily News. “They kept asking me what I bought and saying, ‘Show us your card.’ I didn’t know what was happening.”

This isn’t the first time that Barneys has found itself in hot water over accusations of racial profiling – nor is the issue of profiling among department stores confined to one company.

In 1996, Newsweek ran a column by black journalist Johnnie Roberts who alleged that he was detained and forced into a backroom at the retailer in 1990, after handing an $85 tie back to a clerk. The security guards, apparently failing to see Mr. Roberts give the tie to the employee, aggressively searched and questioned the journalist.

“Suddenly it dawned on me: just as many African-American men have long suspected about ritzy retailers,” he wrote. “Barneys had targeted me as a shoplifter because I’m black.”

Another prominent New York department store, Macy’s, has also faced multiple accusations of racial profiling.

Back in October, Robert Brown, a 29-year-old black actor, filed suit against the store, alleging that he’d been unfairly detained. According to Mr. Brown, who settled with the retailer on undisclosed terms in July, he purchased a $1,300 Movado watch for his mother to celebrate her graduation from college. Police officers then allegedly approached him, insisted that his identification was false and that he could not afford such an item, and held him in a Macy’s cell for one hour.

Eight years earlier, in 2005, Macy's settled another lawsuit – that time for $600,000 – after an investigation by then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer found that security employees in the retailer’s 29 branches in the city engaged in racial profiling of the sort that Barneys was recently accused of.

In response to the spate of profiling accusations that arose last year, several large retailers – Barneys and Macy’s included – adopted a so-called Customers’ Bill of Rights in December, which “strictly prohibits … the profiling of customers.”

As for the recent settlement, Barneys CEO Mark Lee said in a statement that the retailer was “pleased.”

“During the entirety of our 90-year history, Barneys New York has prided itself on providing an unparalleled customer experience to every person that comes into contact with our brand,” he said. “We have absolutely no tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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