An hour after Bilaal Briggs clocked in for work at Sports Authority in Arlington on a mid-May morning, a tall African American man walked into Georgetown’s Zara. He grabbed some clothes and, when a manager spotted him, bolted out of the store. The manager called police and dispatched a warning on a private messaging app that hundreds of Georgetown retailers, residents and officers use to discuss people they deem suspicious in the wealthy, largely white community.
“We just got hit,” wrote the manager, Neetu Kaur. The description: “African American male 6’2 tattoos of stars on right side of neck and a tattoo of letters on the left side of his sideburns.”
Two days later, Briggs, who is black, 6-foot-1 and has tattoos of stars on his neck, arrived at Zara to buy a shirt he had placed on hold. The manager spotted Briggs, mistook him for the thief and called police. Within minutes, Briggs was in cuffs, wondering what had happened.
Briggs, who was cleared of charges after he produced a timecard showing that he was at work at the time of the crime, still hasn’t returned to Georgetown to shop — too scared, he said. Zara transmitted a description of someone who looks like him to hundreds of people. Shopping in Georgetown could mean another arrest, he said. “I was just being picked out of a crowd full of people because I fit the description of a tall, black man who has tattoos,” said Briggs, who believes he was racially profiled. He added, “You look at me and you might say, ‘This guy is up to no good.’ ”
His allegation of racial profiling hit the District in a week when similar accusations have ignited protests and viral hashtags. Outrage erupted on social media when Jason Goolsby, a black student at the University of the District of Columbia, was arrested Monday outside an ATM after a white woman reported that she was scared. And on Wednesday, The Washington Post published a report detailing that 70 percent of the people whom Georgetown retailers called suspicious in their private messaging app between January and September were black.
The messaging app project, launched by the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) and dubbed “Operation GroupMe,” has since enflamed debate over gentrification in a city that is rapidly becoming whiter and more affluent. To some, the group substantiates long-held suspicions that businesses in Georgetown — once a bastion of black life — unduly surveils customers of color. But to others, the app’s use represents innovation in the long effort to prevent shoplifting in the high-end retail strip.
The group’s correspondence this week highlighted that divide as retailers struggled with difficult questions. Is it racial profiling if you spot criminal activity and the person happens to be black? When can you be sure your suspicion is warranted?
“Ppl have gotten out with stuff of ours when we try to just ignore ‘that feeling,’ ” one employee at H&M wrote. “I understand the concern and the point of the article. Not everyone steals because they don’t have money. Some ppl steal from our stores because they think they can. If we’re on to them, sometimes they just give up and go to the register. Sometimes they leave without incident. But there are typical things that thieves do that make them ‘alert’ us. Certain habits.”
An Abercrombie & Fitch employee said their training helps them pinpoint shoplifters’ behavior cues. “It does not matter to the shop owner what race/ethnicity or religion said people are,” she told the group Thursday morning. “If a specific group of people are displaying these characteristics more than others, that’s not profiling — that’s reality.”
Joe Sternlieb, chief executive of the Georgetown BID, said that every part of the city is subject to racial profiling and that it’s unfair to criticize Georgetown just because its residents are white and wealthy. His organization, he said, has held meetings to train people about sensitive use and have kicked out those who didn’t comply. He said that objectionable postings have constituted only a small percentage of the correspondence, which stretches across thousands of messages.
An example of that, he said, would be “if you’re a salesclerk and three African Americans come in, and they don’t look like your typical customer, to say: ‘Three African Americans just came into my store with tattoos. Can I have help,’ ” he said. But retailers should report thefts. “That’s not profiling if you’re reporting on a criminal behavior and you’re describing the person who did it.”
But this, Sternlieb conceded, is also where things get murky. Does the preponderance of mentions of African Americans in the app’s correspondence reinforce — or spark — biases among members and result in further allegations of shoplifting against more blacks?
The difficulty in discerning the difference between perception and reality in racial matters isn’t a new struggle among social scientists. For instance, there’s no statistical difference between illicit drug use between whites and blacks, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But blacks have a much higher chance of being arrested on drug charges. In the District, before marijuana was legalized, African Americans were eight times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges, an American Civil Liberties Union report shows.
The same discrepancy exists when it comes to shoplifting, said Jerome D. Williams, a Rutgers University professor working on a book exploring racial profiling in the retail industry. In years of studying the matter, he said, he has never discovered any compelling reason to think that one racial group shoplifts more than others.
It’s far easier to tell which demographic is arrested the most. Blacks represent roughly 13 percent of the national population, but 2012 FBI statistics show that they accounted for 29 percent of larceny-theft arrests. In the District, where African Americans are half of the population, 94 percent of people arrested for larceny thefts were black.
Those statistics, Williams said, are misleading. “The arrest data does not give us the true picture of what you really want to know,” he said. “Because the arrest record tells you who got caught, and who got caught is a function of who got watched, and as we know, who gets watched is, in many instances, a function of what color” the person is.
Bilaal Briggs is more familiar with this dynamic than he’d like to be. In 2012, he was also accused of shoplifting before authorities dropped that case, too. He understands how he might look to a retailer.
“I know how hard it is not to judge someone on how they look,” said Briggs, 25, who worked at the fashion store DTLR for three years. “I also know it’s hard to come into a store and buy what you want without someone thinking otherwise.”
But he said he never expected it at Zara, a store he said he once loved and patronized on a weekly basis. He said it was the most humiliating moment of his life.
“Is it really that easy??” he wrote in an e-mail. “All you have to do is be a black male dressed in a t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes, with tattoos on your body, and a little hair on your head — and you’re automatically guilty of a crime?”