George Floyd died in police custody after a corner store clerk reported he had used a fake $20 bill, a nonviolent offense so low-level that police don’t usually take people to jail for it.
Now, as the trial over his death continues to unfold, criminal justice reform experts and diversity specialists are hoping the case will prompt retailers — from small businesses to major chains — to reassess how they treat black and other minority customers and how they can handle loss prevention cases more equitably.
Retailers, they point out, are on the front lines of racial justice in their own stores.
“While interactions with the police can be fairly infrequent, everyone shops,” said Cassi Pitt man Claytor, a sociology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who has studied racial profiling in retail settings. “When [Black people] are asked about the contexts where they are treated unfairly due to their race … shopping in a store ranks above all other settings, including interactions with the police.”
Since Floyd’s death last May, many retailers have made public promises committing to racial equity. Several companies, including Twin Cities-based Target and Best Buy, have shared their plans to diversify hiring and made financial contributions to Black-owned businesses and organizations focused on fighting inequality.
But some criminal justice reform advocates say retailers need to do more to create and enforce policies to address how racial bias negatively impacts customers.
“I don’t think that they really have dealt with and have been honest about dealing with it,” said Jesse Ross, a local diversity and inclusion consultant who has worked with a range of retailers. “It’s ‘Oh we’re going to put out money,’ and ‘Oh, we’re going to give a couple bonuses’ and all of these things, but we are not addressing the very grassroots-level issues that could probably prevent so many other things like a George Floyd from happening.”
Ross, who is Black, said he has been racially profiled in store,s and he doesn’t think many retailers have transparent complaint processes where they evaluate and respond to reports of customer mistreatment.
“Certainly in loss prevention, there are certain behaviors that look sketchy that you are supposed to look out for or pay attention to, but then there’s also that profiling that we know happens,” Ross said.
In response to community outcry following Floyd’s death, the owner of the Cup Foods store said they would no longer contact police in cases of nonviolent crime, as they did for Floyd’s suspected counterfeit bill.
Raymond Moss, who runs the St. Paul-based Carl Moss Institute that helps young people who have been incarcerated re-enter society, believes more stores need to forgo calling the police for small crimes and change the loss prevention culture among their security officers and staff. Moss worked as a loss prevention officer for large department stores for more than five years when he was younger and now runs his own security company in the Detroit area, in addition to teaching criminal justice college courses online.
Some big-box stores promote making apprehensions, Moss said: “Like you got a board up there, everybody has their name on there and they might set a goal that you need to get four apprehensions for the month. It’s nothing in there to say ‘be a deterrent, let’s deter folks from stealing.’ ”
While security officers are told not to profile people, Moss, who is Black, said he has seen co-workers follow groups of Black shoppers around the store floor. Moss would try to play his two-way radio loud when he got close to somebody he suspected was stealing to scare them into ditching the item. He said he has seen how a minor crime like shoplifting can lead to a life of serious crime.
“Retail is almost like a gateway to other small-type petty crimes,” he said.
When police do become involved, people should be steered to diversion programs with groups that are familiar with working with youth of color, Moss said. Retailers should also phase out using off-duty police officers for store security, he said.
Racial stereotypes that link Black people to criminality lead to excessive surveillance of Black people in stores, despite the fact that shoplifting is a common crime in the general population, Pittman Claytor said. Approximately 1 in 11 Americans have shoplifted, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.
Yet many people of color say they have experienced racial profiling in stores. Nearly a quarter of Black respondents to a Gallup poll conducted last summer said they felt they were treated unfairly because of their race while shopping during the preceding 30 days.
Pittman Claytor was one of several researchers tapped by makeup retailer Sephora to collaborate on a study released in January on the state of racial bias in retail. The report showed that limited racial diversity in marketing, merchandise and store staffing results in exclusionary treatment of people of color. Also, many shoppers of color reported using coping mechanisms such as dressing in more expensive clothes to minimize or avoid anticipated bias.
The Sephora study suggests several ways retailers can address racially biased and exclusionary treatment, including employee trainings on unconscious bias and neutral signals for what type of help customers want, such as different colored shopping baskets to indicate whether a customer would like assistance.
Though bias training is popular, research has shown it can have limited effectiveness if it is not part of a more comprehensive strategy, Pittman Claytor said, comparing it to holding an exercise class once a year and thinking it will result in better health.
Sephora has created its own action plan with, among other things, plans to reduce the presence of third-party security, establish a diversity and inclusion experience dashboard to provide feedback to stores on a monthly basis, and larger, sweeping changes.
Though several other large retailers declined to comment on any possible changes to how they handle loss prevention and bias, many are discussing it as a group, according to the National Retail Federation.
“I think maybe years ago when companies started implementing diversity programs, it was because maybe there was a reaction to incidents, [but] now the frame of mind is that we have to be proactive to implement programs,” said Leon Buck, the federation’s vice president for banking and financial services.
Buck chairs a group of about 90 major retail brands that meets virtually once a month to talk about diversity and inclusion including recruiting and retaining diverse employees as well as retail racism and implicit bias.
But many smaller retailers must figure out policies on their own.
Diya Shuaibi, manager of Premium Stop on White Bear Avenue on the East Side of St. Paul, said he tries to avoid unnecessary confrontations with customers and keeps rules and regulations in plain view. If somebody gives him money he thinks is fake, Shuaibi tells the customer he or she could leave the money and the store, or he will call police. Most of the time, the threat of police deters a conflict and the person leaves, but Shuaibi said he isn’t afraid to call police when he feels unsafe.
“We are living on the streets,” he said. “I’m trying to protect myself as much as I can. There’s no option except the police. … We are on our own.”
Hussein Khatib, co-owner of Adam’s Food and Fuel, also on St. Paul’s East Side, said he doesn’t typically call police when he has problems at his gas station, choosing instead to try to de-escalate situations. When he catches a young person stealing, Khatib tries to talk to them and possibly their parents.
“You have to gain community trust. … You have to be involved within your community,” Khatib said. “You have to give respect to earn respect.”
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