Stopping New York's 'Shop and Frisk'

The appalling treatment of shoppers at Barney's and other stores needs to come to an end.

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Mark Lee, CEO of Barneys New York, addresses members of the media with The Rev. Al Sharpton, right, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, at the National Action Headquarters in New York, after discussing allegations of racial profiling. Two black customers recently claimed they were detained by police on suspicion of credit card fraud after lawfully purchasing expensive items.

Many of us have suffered some sort of insult or indignity because of what we look like or what assumptions people make according to our age, race or gender. When I was a teenager, I was sometimes shadowed by saleswomen in clothing stores, presumably because someone decided that teenage girls were more likely to shoplift. Years ago, when I brought my boyfriend along when I went shopping for a car, the salesman immediately approached him to ask what kind of car he was looking for – and then continued to make remarks about the cars or ask questions of my boyfriend even after I informed the employee I was the one buying (and for the record, I did not buy from that dealer).

I've had men at sports bars explain "play action" to me, unprompted, when I was watching a football game along with everyone else and didn't need any remedial instruction. And not long ago, I was having a club soda at a bar when the man I was supposed to meet walked in. I flagged down the bartender to pay, and another man (a stranger) sitting next to me said to the bartender, "oh, I'll get it. She has to go meet her boss." Not my boss, actually – in fact, it was someone I was evaluating for inclusion on a work project.

But nothing compares to walking into a store, paying for an expensive item, then being surrounded by cops and accused of using a stolen credit card – when the police had no other apparent information other than that the buyers were African-American and the items were pricey.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Several African-Americans have come forward to report such insulting behavior after Trayon Christian, a 19-year-old college student, was approached at Barney's department store in New York City after he had the gall to buy a $350 Ferragamo belt. Christian was not charged – but he was taken down to the precinct, where he produced identification.

In other cases, a nursing student says she was accosted by four plainclothes police, manhandled at a subway stop as they demanded she prove she legally purchased a $2,500 Celine purse. A Brooklyn fitness trainer says he was tracked down at his gym and forced to produce receipts to prove he rightfully purchased $350 in shirts and ties from Macy's. And actor Rob Brown of HBO's "Treme" told the New York Daily News he had been handcuffed and detained at Macy's last June while he was trying on a pair of Prada shoes, and after he had bought a $1,350 watch for his mother. He was released after producing multiple forms of ID.

The police and the department stores have been trading blame for the incidents, but it's hard to see where either of those sides is innocent. If police hassled or detained a shopper, it's hard to imagine they did so with no input from store security. And police should know better than to be so aggressive with a shopper unless that person was observed stealing.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

Did the clerks ask for ID when the purchase was made? And if so, why the suspicion that the ID was fake? I am white, and I have almost never been asked for ID to prove that the credit card I was using was mine. I wish more stores would actually check. When my wallet was stolen a few years back, the thieves ran up thousands of dollars in credit card charges at nearby shops before I got the cards canceled. The pack (police said it was a robbery ring) even rented a car with my ID and credit card. How could the clerk not have noticed that the person carrying my driver's license was not me? Would there have been closer examination if the would-be renter were of another race?

The New York attorney general is investigating the cases, as he should. And the CEO of Barney's, to his credit, sat down with the Rev. Al Sharpton to discuss the matter. This should not be a two- or three-day outrage. There is something particularly appalling about telling racial minorities – who statistically are more likely to be poor than white people in this country – that they, too, can get ahead and shop at Barney's, but then presume they are thieves if, in fact, they do reach that point. "Shop and Frisk," as the New York City tabs have appropriately dubbed it, must stop.

Oh – and no handbag is worth wasting $2,500 on.

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