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Poor Use of Technology Leads to Potential Racial Profiling in Retail Stores

In today’s retail world, technology has become a primary force behind many of our strategic plans, driving many loss prevention initiatives and fueling new solutions in an omni-channel retail environment.

However, technology alone cannot solve all of the challenges that our loss prevention programs face on a day-to-day basis. We’re all well aware that technology is also a tool used by those that have dishonest intentions, to include organized retail crime teams, cyber-criminals, and others seeking to take advantage of retail organizations. However, even technology tools intended to help deter and resolve theft and crime can lead to significant problems when poorly implemented and managed.

Such appears to be the case with a new app that has recently made headlines due to complaints of potential racial profiling. A recent Washington Post article, “The secret surveillance of ‘suspicious’ blacks in one of the nation’s poshest neighborhoods,” describes incidents in which individuals are identifying “suspicious” individuals in an attempt to share information and deter criminal acts.

- Digital Partner -

In February of last year, the Georgetown Business Improvement District partnered with District police to launch  “Operation GroupMe”, 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.

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 shoplifting is often alleged, but in other instance these shoppers aren’t accused of anything beyond seeming “suspicious.”

This has once again raised real concern over incidents of potential racial profiling. Those using the application haven’t been appropriately trained on the core competencies necessary to appropriately and effectively identify shoplifting behaviors. Descriptions of the incidents are largely based on the way individuals look and dress rather that any behaviors that they are engaging in. Photos are being published to online media outlets identifying individuals as being “suspicious” or “dishonest” simply based on the opinions of untrained eyes.

Even when those eyes have good intentions, such activity can and often will lead to unfortunate results. Offensive posts, inappropriate comments, and poor judgment can result when such tools are left in the hands of the ignorant and/or uninformed.

Racial profiling is absolutely an unacceptable practice, and many retailers have taken steps to make their stance on the subject crystal clear through policies, official statements, and support of programs such as the “Customer Bill of Rights” document.  Loss prevention certification and company training programs educate loss prevention personnel on industry best practices. Yet tools such as this can still undermine our best efforts.

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While we are currently unaware of any retailers that have sanctioned the use of such tools, several of the articles associated with this disturbing behavior have identified retail employees as among those using the application and posting these comments.

What do you think? This week’s LP Magazine Instant Poll question asks: Should our employees be allowed to use digital apps to identify potential shoplifters and report suspicious behavior?

All employees should be prohibited from using this type of tool
This tool should only be used by loss prevention personnel.
This type of tool should only be used if employees are trained on how to use them.
Employees should be allowed to use this type of tool if it deters crime in the store.

Have any additional thoughts that you would like to share? We’d love to hear about it. Please share your thoughts by clicking here. All responses to our polls are kept strictly confidential.

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