Three black teens shopping for prom at a Nordstrom Rack in Brentwood, Mo., near St. Louis, faced the police after store employees suspected they were shoplifting, calling further attention to incidents of racial profiling in commercial spaces over the past month.
Nordstrom has since apologized, and on Tuesday the young men met with Nordstrom executives to discuss the incident and work on ways to prevent them from happening again at company stores. Still, St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt, who had met with the young men beforehand, told The Washington Post earlier on Tuesday that he and the young men knew an apology will not be a permanent solution.
“These kids, they’re owed an apology, but at the end of the day, it goes down to what can we do to keep this from happening to folks,” said Pruitt, who has met with them. “After all of this was said and done, Nordstrom cannot fix society on its own as it relates to these stereotypes.”
Pruitt said the young men met with company co-president Blake Nordstrom, President of Nordstrom Rack Geevy Thomas and Farrell Redwine, Nordstrom’s vice president of human resources. Pruitt said the executives personally apologized and “praised the young men for how they handled the entire situation.” The teens were accompanied by their parents, grandparents, the NAACP and their attorney, who was not named.
At the end of the meeting, all parties agreed “to a continued dialogue with an emphasis on a common desire to prevent incidents of this nature from happening in the future,” Pruitt wrote.
In a statement provided to The Post, a Nordstrom spokesperson said the company has guidelines that direct employees to call the police only in emergency situations.
“Unfortunately, those guidelines weren’t followed,” the statement said.
Thomas thanked the men “for their poise in dealing with local law enforcement and the police themselves for handling the situation professionally.” He said the company is conducting an internal investigation of the incident and was “committed to ensuring our processes and guidelines are well understood by our employees, and identifying opportunities to enhance the training and resources we offer them.”
A company spokesperson declined to comment on exact plans for new training, saying those specifics were still being developed.
Mekhi Lee, Eric Rogers and Dirone Taylor were shopping at the Nordstrom Rack on Thursday when they noticed store employees closely eyeing them and following them through the aisles. Lee has just completed his freshman year of college and was with his longtime friends, Taylor and Rogers, who were shopping for prom.
Pruitt said that one of the men wanted to try on a shirt, so he removed his hat to do so. The store employees kept following the men, Pruitt said, so they decided to leave.
Shortly after, the man who had tried on the shirt realized he left his hat in the store, so the three of them went back. That’s when they were approached by an elderly white woman who had also been shopping.
“Now they’re confronted by an elderly white woman in the store who says to them, ‘Would your parents and grandparents be proud of what you’re doing?’ ” Pruitt said. The woman also referred to them as “a bunch of bums,” according to Pruitt.
At that point, the men asked to speak to a store manager, but employees told them they couldn’t meet with one, Pruitt said. The men left the store a second time and turned back to see the manager come to sidewalk and wave.
That’s when they chose to return, Pruitt said.
“They decided, ‘We have money, we came here to shop and demonstrate to them that we aren’t thugs. We have money like anybody else,’ ” Pruitt said.
While the men were making their purchases, the elderly woman was in line waiting to check out behind them. The manager, who is white, opened up a new register to ring the woman up, Pruitt said.
The manager then escorted the white woman to her car, Pruitt said.
While the men were paying for their items, they heard staff employees say they were calling the police. Pruitt said the men left the store and waited for the police to arrive.
When they did, the officers said they had been alerted to three black men who were shoplifting. The men showed the police their receipts and let them search their bags, Pruitt said.
Pruitt said the men felt the police were simply doing their jobs in responding to reports of shoplifters.
Joseph Spiess, Brentwood’s chief of police, told The Post that his department received a message from dispatch about three black men, including one in a blue sweatsuit, shoplifting “handfuls of products.” Three officers responded shortly after 1 p.m.
Spiess said the men asked the officers why they had been stopped, at which point the officers played them the dispatch call.
“They listened to them and put the story together,” Spiess said, “and they were satisfied that nothing happened.”
The whole encounter, including officers’ conversations with store employees, took about 30 minutes, Spiess said. This particular Nordstrom Rack is located in a higher-end retail area, Spiess said, so it isn’t uncommon for officers to receive calls about shoplifting there.
Spiess said the officers did not report any interactions with store employees that suggested the call was racially motivated.
Pruitt said he has been talking with the men about ways to protect others from finding themselves in similar situations.
When the men met with Pruitt, they said they wanted to help develop programs through the Boys & Girls Club — where they first became friends — and create opportunities for young people to find jobs. Punishing Nordstrom is not their goal, he said.
“That’s not what they want,” Pruitt said. “They’re not interested in bringing Nordstrom any harm. They’re interested in seeing someone pick up the mantle and try to fix this problem.”
Pruitt added: “I’m going to follow y’all’s lead.”