Residents Sue Domino's Citing D.C. Delivery Bias |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 1999; Page A1
To Domino's Pizza drivers, Q Street SW is a dangerous place. If you live on Q Street and order a large pepperoni, you can expect the delivery person to sit tight behind the wheel as you walk into the street to pay. Day or night, sunshine or rain, the drill is the same.
Jim and Wesley Bell know this, as do neighbors Dino Roach and Kerry Hudson. The four men calculate that they have exited their middle-class homes more than 200 times to wait while the pizza man counted their money.
The way they see it, something isn't right.
"It's like each time I went out there to get a pizza, knowing my son was watching, it took a little piece of my dignity," said Wesley Bell, 28, an African American general manager of a Southwest Washington fitness club.
Bell's complaint is one of three working its way through District courthouses, where Domino's customers are challenging the company's refusal to deliver to their doors. Claiming discrimination, the Bell brothers see themselves as the political and moral descendants of Rosa Parks.
"I don't believe that I got all this education and they make me come outside," said Jim Bell, an American University law school graduate. "No one can tell me that if a whole bunch of white folks moved onto my block, Domino's would do them the same way."
Using D.C. police department statistics, Bell says the unit block of Q Street SW recorded fewer crimes in the past two years than the 3200 block of Prospect Street NW, the Georgetown location of a Domino's.
A close look at the details, he contends, would show that Bell's neighborhood near South Capitol Street is not notably risky. Bell believes that Domino's, instead of doing solid research, is resorting to stereotypes grounded in skin color and street address.
Domino's says the brown skin of Q Street residents plays no part in the decision not to deliver. Domino's attorneys, including D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), contend that the crux is driver safety in a still-violent city.
"There have been all too many incidents involving pizza delivery people who have been assaulted, robbed and murdered, all over the country," said Stewart Manela, an attorney for Team Washington, which operates more than 50 Domino's stores in the area. "The balance that's struck is, we will deliver. We will make it almost as convenient as it is for anybody to get pizza."
Almost is not good enough for the Bells, who believe Domino's owes its customers a more careful analysis of what is dangerous and what isn't.
"If you feel there are some problems, get some crime statistics. Don't just say, 'Because they're black, it's a high-crime area,' " Jim Bell said. "If you think they're going to make people in Georgetown come out and get their pizzas, that's ridiculous."
The issue stretches beyond Washington to cities across the country where African American customers have complained about redlining by pizza companies. A federal judge in Florida last year ordered a Domino's franchise to deliver to a predominantly black neighborhood if it continued to deliver to a nearby white community.
Jim Bell goes further. The federal investigator, who worked on an equal-rights case involving black farmers, sees himself as every African American trailed through a store by a shopkeeper or left standing in the rain by a cabby driving an empty taxi.
"The reason I'm doing this is because of that little guy right there," explained Wesley Bell, pointing to his 5-year-old son. "I remember my father telling stories about restrooms he couldn't use and places he couldn't go. Who would have expected that coming to the year 2000, I'd have to sit down with my son and have the same conversation my grandfather had with my father and my father had with me?"
Kerry Hudson, a plumbing company owner, feels similarly stung by the street-payment policy of Domino's, at 1200 S. Capitol St. He remembers his friends having a "big laugh" at his expense when they saw him go into the street to meet the delivery man on a Super Bowl Sunday.
" 'If Domino's doesn't deliver, it must be a dangerous neighborhood. Should I lock my car? Are my tires still there?' " Hudson, 35, recalled his friends saying in mocking tones. "They asked me why. They call me now and ask if I want them to bring something over. It's embarrassing."
Three cases are pending, including a multimillion-dollar federal civil rights case filed by the four Q Street men in U.S. District Court. Jim Bell also sued Team Washington and a local Domino's driver in D.C. Superior Court, as did Potomac Gardens resident Christine Pollard.
Pollard says she repeatedly missed connections with a Domino's driver who insisted that she meet him in the housing complex's parking lot. When she complained, she said, a manager at the Domino's at 1500 Pennsylvania Ave. SE cursed at her and called her and her neighbors "trash."
Former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., hired by Domino's as an expert witness, said in a Sept. 15 court statement that Potomac Gardens has been classified historically as "one of the most violent public housing projects in the District of Columbia."
"Team Washington permits its drivers to assess the safety of the delivery area," the lawyers wrote, leading to compromises in deliveries. "Neither race nor place of residence -- only safety -- plays a role in that business decision."
A spokesman at the national headquarters of Domino's Pizza in Ann Arbor, Mich., said delivery decisions are made by the owners of the 4,500 franchises. He said Domino's intends to deliver everywhere but sometimes cuts off neighborhoods or reaches what he calls "a good compromise" to protect drivers.
"It's a sad fact that some places are just too unsafe for us to go into," said Tim McIntyre, vice president for communications. "It's another sad fact that when we avoid those places, we're accused of discrimination."
McIntyre said Domino's wants its franchises to research the situation: "We don't just encourage them to make gut-level decisions. Before somebody cuts off an area, we want them to work with their local law enforcement officials."
Team Washington officials and attorneys said in court documents they did not request crime statistics from D.C. police. Nor, they said, does the company have written policies for determining where compromises and cutoffs are advisable.
"They're not looking at any statistics," Manela said of the drivers, who he said are African American. "They're employees who are from the community and are basically using their own knowledge of the neighborhood. Through on-the-job training from other drivers and their own experiences, they make whatever judgments they make about how they want to handle the deliveries."
Pizza Boli's on Eighth Street SE delivers without fear to doors along Q Street SW and other places where Domino's employs its pay-in-the-street policy, said owner Muhammed Aslam Hayat. Because his drivers have been robbed several times in apartment buildings, Hayat requires high-rise customers to meet the delivery person in the lobby.
Jim Bell has a specific complaint about Domino's driver Jamaal Blount, who is named in Bell's Superior Court suit. He contends Blount grew abusive, pulled a knife and threatened to kill him in July 1998 when Bell asked for a discount for late service.
Store manager Alfred Matthews said in a deposition that he confiscated a knife from Blount that night and threw it away. In his own deposition, Blount said he remembered delivering the pizza, remembered his knife was brown, but couldn't "recall too much" about what happened.
Bell is eager to go to trial.
"This is about my neighborhood. The settlement I want is a verdict from a D.C. jury," explained Bell, who said money is not central to him. "I don't care what they give me. What I do care is that they [Domino's] stop doing this. It'll send a message to all other places: You don't discriminate based on what they look like or where they live."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company