Georgetown has one of the nation’s most upscale shopping areas. The Georgetown Business Improvement District suspended a private messaging service after concerns about racial profiling. (iStock)

The Georgetown Business Improvement District has suspended a private messaging service that hundreds of residents, retailers and police officers used to discuss people they consider suspicious amid mounting concern that the application has been used to racially profile people.

It’s unclear when — or in what form — the service dubbed “Operation GroupMe” will return. Joe Sternlieb, the organization’s chief executive, said his team will first do a “top-to-bottom review” of the program and develop a “robust anti-racial-profiling training” course that will be mandatory for gaining access to the group.

“Only after this work has been completed, and we can determine that a tool like the GroupMe app can be deployed to effectively meet the highest standards of professionalism and protection of all Georgetown’s customers, will we revisit putting it back online,” Sternlieb said in a statement. He declined to comment further Monday.

Thousands of messages and hundreds of pictures have deluged the group since February of last year, when the business organization partnered with D.C. police to launch the operation in an attempt to curb shoplifting in one of the nation’s poshest shopping districts. Roughly 70 percent of that correspondence between January and September expressed suspicions about black people. About 90 percent of the photographs posted in the group showed African Americans. Some people were described in offensive language.

Those details, reported in The Washington Post last week, resonated in a city that is quickly becoming whiter, more affluent and mired in a heated debate over the implications of gentrification. Angry e-mails flooded the business organization. Some told followers on social media to stay away from the neighborhood, home to many of Washington’s elite. One man, who was wrongly arrested after he fit a description disseminated on the group, said he was afraid to go shopping in Georgetown again.

Sternlieb said in the statement that was the last thing his organization wanted when it started the group. “While the app has been effective in deterring shoplifting, the news stories and the dialogue that followed have brought up legitimate concerns about the use of the app and its potential to wrongfully identify shoppers as shoplifters,” he said. He expressed concern that the app could be used to violate shoppers’ “civil rights and individual dignity.”
Group members on Sunday and Monday mourned the service’s suspension, saying it brought the community and its officers together. Others said they wanted to keep the communication going — with or without the Business Improvement District.

“The sentiment seems to be overwhelming that many of us feel the value & benefit far outweigh the harm or perception of profiling,” said one resident who listed his name as John K. He added: “If you elect to abruptly shut this down, an alternative forum must be established in the interim. Otherwise, we — the members of this group who share a community-wide desire to maintain it, will be left with no alternative but to create an unauthorized/unofficial ‘shadow’ group.”

Such comments convey why the group bothers Erin Schaaf, a resident who joined Operation GroupMe months ago, but rarely posted. She said a distinct fear of the other permeated the group. Passersby were considered suspicious, she said, because they looked different.

“The self-fulfilling prophecy of racial profiling,” she said. “That sums up to me what the issue is here. If we’re only looking at people who don’t look like they live in Georgetown, and only looking at black teens and using looks to determine suspicion, we’re going to end up in a bad place.”

But she said she can empathize with those who are upset over the suspension. Walking around at night, it’s comforting to know you can access dozens of police officers with a few keystrokes on your phone. “It takes away that feeling that you could ever be alone,” she said.

That’s why Kati Pope, sales manager at the luxury outdoor furniture shop Janus et Cie, liked the group. She said that some potentially violent situations had recently occurred in the community and that the group’s updates about them had allayed her concerns.

“There’s a valid use for this app,” she said. “It helps with police relations. I didn’t know any of the officers around here, and it helped me appreciate their efforts. . . . And for [the app] to be considered racial profiling is distressing.”