In recent weeks, Barneys New York and Macy's Herald Square have come under fire for the suspicious stopping of shoppers of color. Four shoppers of various minority groups have all come forward with the same theme: they purchased items and upon leaving the store, were stopped, frisked and questioned by the NYPD. Lawsuits have now been filed against both stores. The New York State Attorney General's Office has started an investigation as well. Barneys and Macy's officials blame the NYPD, stating that all of this happened outside of their premises; NYPD says that the stores' security called them, asking for assistance because the shoppers seemed suspicious.
The first question that comes to mind is, does store security or the police have the right to stop you? If they have a reasonable suspicion that you have committed theft, yes they do. How they do it becomes the critical question. In some stores, security will randomly check patron's receipts before they leave the store, which is perfectly legal. If store security sees a patron on the surveillance camera stealing merchandise, or acting suspiciously, it is within their right to investigate. However, if the store starts targeting customers based on color or ethnicity, with no other basis—now there is an issue.
What does this all mean for you? The holidays are coming, you have saved up for that high end bag or designer shoes...does that mean you can't shop where you want? Of course not. Here are some tips to get you through.
1) Always bring identification with you, especially if you are using a credit card. You should never leave the house without identification anyway, but especially now in the age of fraud; most places will not accept a credit card without ID.
2) Keep all receipts close at hand, so that you can access them easily if there is an issue. If your receipt was emailed to you, check your mobile device to make sure you have it before leaving.
3) If you are stopped, stay calm. The last thing you need to do is make a scene and turn a bad situation into a downright ugly one. In all likelihood, once your purchases are verified, you will be sent on your way. If you start cursing at everyone and pop your neck (as much as you may want to and be totally justified in doing so), the police can decide to charge you with disorderly conduct and take you to jail. Not fun.
4) Ask why you are being stopped. You are entitled to a reason or explanation. Again, stay calm even though you are fuming. Keep a low, calm tone of voice. Officers are very tense when they are in an encounter. It takes seconds for you to be flat out on your face.
5) When you show that your purchases are legitimate, start documenting. Calmly ask for names and badge numbers. Most officers have a nametag on their uniforms, so you can get the names easily. If the officers are undercover, then you will have to ask.
6) Once you leave, take action. Make a complaint to the police department's internal affairs, citing why you feel you were unjustly stopped. Many cities have a civilian complaint review board; this is another avenue to make a complaint. If you are in New York, contact the New York State Attorney General's office (or your state attorney general.) And do it quickly! Stores have surveillance cameras that document encounters on the store property, but the information is erased at some point. If you wait too long, this critical evidence will not be preserved.
7) Keep the evidence! Put the receipts in a safe place, make/scan/photograph copies, so that later on down the line you can show that you did in fact pay for your purchases.
As a side note, if you thinking you can avoid this issue by not going to Barneys or Macy's, think again. The NYC Commission on Human Rights has sent letters to 17 major retailers requesting loss prevention policies, procedures for approaching and detaining individuals suspected of theft, records regarding all individuals accused of theft in the past two years, and what, if any presence, NYPD officers have in the retail locations.
Of course, if you want to avoid the whole thing, there is always the option of supporting the local businesses and online retailers that support you. Food for thought this holiday season!
Melba Pearson is an attorney, writer, speaker, wife and the Resident Legal Diva. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.