It was nearing closing time in March last year when a manager at Boffi Georgetown dispatched a series of alarmed messages. Observing two men yelling outside the luxury kitchen and bath showroom, Julia Walter reached for her phone and accessed a private messaging application that hundreds of residents, retailers and police in this overwhelmingly white, wealthy neighborhood use to discuss people they deem suspicious.
“2 black males screaming at each other in alley,” Walter wrote. “. . . Help needed.”
One minute later, a District police officer posted he would check it out, and Walter felt relieved. But as weeks gave way to months and the private group spawned hundreds of messages, Walter’s relief turned to unease. The overwhelming majority of the people the app’s users cited were black. Was the chatroom reducing crime along the high-end retail strip? Was it making people feel safer? Or was it racial profiling?
These are questions being asked across the country as people experiment with services that bill themselves as a way to prevent crime, but also expose latent biases. The application “SketchFactor,” which invited users to report “sketchy” people, faced allegations of racism in both the District and New York. Another social network roiled Oakland, Calif., when white residents used Nextdoor.com to cite “suspicious activity” about black neighbors. Taking it even further was GhettoTracker.com, which asked users to rate neighborhoods based on whether they thought they were “safe” or a “ghetto.”
Now “Operation GroupMe” is stirring controversy in Georgetown. In February of last year, the Georgetown Business Improvement District partnered with District police to launch the effort, which they call a “real-time mobile-based group-messaging app that connects Georgetown businesses, police officers and community members.” Since then, the app has attracted nearly 380 users who surreptitiously report on — and photograph — shoppers in an attempt to deter crime.
The correspondence has provided an unvarnished glimpse into Georgetown retailers’ latest effort to stop their oldest scourge: shoplifting. But while the goal is admirable, the result, critics say, has been less so, laying bare the racial fault lines that still define this cobblestoned enclave of tony boutiques and historic rowhouses that is home to many of Washington’s elite.
Since March of last year, Georgetown retailers have dispatched more than 6,000 messages that discuss suspicious people. A review by the Business Improvement District of all the messages since January — more than 3,000 — revealed that nearly 70 percent of those people were black. The employees often allege shoplifting. But other times, retailers don’t accuse these shoppers of anything beyond seeming suspicious.
“Suspicious shoppers in store,” an American Apparel retailer said in April last year. “3 female. 1 male strong smell of weed. All African American. Help please.”
“What did they look like?” a True Religion employee in May last year asked an American Apparel retailer who had reported a theft. “Ratchet,” the American Apparel worker replied, using a slang term for trashy that often has a racial connotation. “Lol.”
“Suspicious tranny in store at Wear,” reported one worker at Hu’s Wear in May. “AA male as female. 6ft 2. Broad shoulders.” Tranny is offensive slang for transgender.
The retailers have also uploaded hundreds of pictures to the chatroom, many of which they took clandestinely. Since March last year, the images have shown more than 230 shoppers, more than 90 percent of whom are African American. “Known thieves,” one retailer wrote beside pictures of three African American women, without specifying any evidence. “Look out.”
It’s unclear what effect, if any, such correspondence has had on crime in the area. Some retailers say the community feels safer and more connected. But it has precipitated “relatively few arrests,” said Joe Sternlieb, chief executive of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which organized the group. He added: “It’s impossible to know what’s working and what’s not to deter crime.”
People who know about the group are nervous to talk about it. District police declined numerous requests for comment. Some retailers wouldn’t discuss the group. Others would, but only on the condition of anonymity.
“It’s such a volatile issue that it’s not a good idea to be on the record,” explained one man who requested that he only be identified as a Georgetown retailer. “Every headline in the country is about officers and the race issue, and it’s a terrible issue and [this] is a delicate balance. . . . Shoplifting has always been an issue and as long as there’s stores, lower-income people are going to have a higher tendency to steal.”
On any given weekend, the shops and restaurants of Georgetown hum with a sense of commerce. Established as a port town, Georgetown once marked an important stop in Mid-Atlantic shipping routes for transporting slaves. Eventually, those freed slaves founded a thriving community of 4,000 black Georgetown residents — before economic, social and legislative forces ushered their exodus.
By 1972, only around 250 black people lived in Georgetown. According to 2010 Census data, 3.7 percent — or roughly 800 — of the 20,464 residents of the Georgetown, Burleigh and Hillandale neighborhoods are African American. Whites account for 81 percent.
When Georgetown University senior Liv Holmes first moved to the neighborhood, the racial disparity made her feel especially conspicuous.
Other students, she said, would sometimes ask her if she went to Howard University, a historically black university. Or, she said, M Street retailers would suggest she couldn’t afford their merchandise.
“We are racially profiled, for sure,” said Holmes, who grew up in Upper Marlboro, Md., where blacks outnumber whites 2 to 1. “As I walk into a store, the assumption is to follow me around. . . . When you feel that person is over the top of your shoulder, you do feel like you’re being racially profiled, and you will leave the store and say, ‘I won’t give you any of my sales.’ ”
But then, in 2012, she took a job at one of those M Street stores. Within months of working at Sunglass Hut, she saw her first shoplifter. It happened so fast, Holmes said, there was little she could do. And in those moments, she said, she would have liked to have had some way to tell the other stores what had happened. “Sometimes, letting others know, ‘Hey, we just got jacked’ is a good thing,” Holmes said.
The Georgetown business community has long tried to broaden communication among stores and enable what Holmes had wanted. But nothing ever seemed to work. Phone trees. E-mail lists. Block captains. All failures. Every store fended for itself.
“We were looking for ways to share information as quickly as possible,” said John Wiebenson, a Georgetown Business Improvement District official. And nothing was quicker than the GroupMe application, which he calls a “valuable tool” in preventing shoplifting.
But 18 months in, some residents wonder: Is the price this new tool exacts too high?
That was a question Leslie Hinkson, a Georgetown sociology professor who studies race and inequality, tried to answer on a recent afternoon. She had known about the group for months and had scrolled through most of the messages. It’s almost like an sociology experiment, she said.
The group has codified its own language and operating culture. African Americans are referred to as “aa.” Hundreds of images of unaware African Americans circulate in the group.
“We should be honest here,” Hinkson said. “Crime does occur in Georgetown. And quite often when people describe the perpetrators of those crimes, they’re usually young men of color. But that doesn’t mean every person of color is an automatic suspect.”
To be fair, police officers and others frequently press each other for more details, or correct users who veer into stereotyping. One person in July reported that “3 aa males currently in zara smelling of weed.” One officer advised him to “call 911.” But then another replied, “That’s not a crime.”
Or initial assumptions would turn out wrong. In February, an employee at Hu’s Wear surreptitiously snapped a photograph of a tall, elegantly dressed African American man wearing distressed jeans, a gray scarf and a long brown coat. “AA male,” the retailer said. “He just left. Headed towards 29th St. About 6 foot. Tats on neck and hand. Very suspicious, looking everywhere.”
An employee at Suitsupply saw the message. He recognized the man. But he was no shoplifter. “He was just in Suitsupply,” the employee wrote. “Made a purchase of several suits and some gloves.”
Another time, a black American Apparel employee wearing orange took a selfie in which she smiled, framing a shopper in the background. “Look out for these girls,” she said in an accompanying message. “Known thefts.”
“Good job on the pics!” said a Benetton employee. “Only known thieves would smile for the camera.”
“Yea,” an American Apparel manager said. “Not to be confused, girl in orange is our employee.”
Officials with the Georgetown Business Improvement District said they’re aware of what they call “questionable postings.” So they have passed out brochures establishing guidelines on how to use the application to communicate concern without offending. Retailers may panic when they see suspicious behavior and dispatch messages bereft of details, Wiebenson said.
The group ultimately got to be too much for Julia Walter, the showroom manager at Boffi. She was one of the first people to post that March evening last year, but has since turned off the application. Too many messages, she said, too much “racial profiling.”
“Not every African American person who comes to the showroom is suspicious,” she said. “And it made me super uncomfortable that [the messages] made me sometimes look differently at African Americans when they come here — and I don’t want to do that. I hate profiling just because they’re a certain ethnicity, but unfortunately, it’s the reality of what’s happened."