Racial Profiling: We Can No Longer Just Turn Our Heads

Racial Profiling in retail stores

“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
– President Barack Obama

How does it make you feel when you hear the President of the United States making these remarks about racial profiling? Is it an accurate statement? Is it a fair statement? Is it a reflection of one man’s opinion, or an indictment of the loss prevention industry as a whole? Regardless of your personal politics, a statement made with such conviction about racial profiling from the leader of our country sends a powerful message—and one that deserves our collective attention.

But when the comments were made by the President and repeated over and over by the press following the Trayvon Martin verdict, the implications were accepted by the general public with very little push-back. Why is that? If it’s a valid assessment, why hasn’t it been addressed more aggressively? If it’s not a valid assessment, why haven’t we been more forward or vocal in our objections? More likely, the general response—or lack thereof—is largely a product of many factors that can complicate the subject of racial profiling and lead us down difficult roads. Have we done enough? Do we need to do more? It is a highly sensitive topic, but it’s one that’s not going to go away or can be buried in the sand.

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The entire subject of racial profiling is extremely volatile, and draws passionate reactions. Anger is a very common response, which is certainly understandable. It should come as no surprise to anyone that an innocent person shopping in a store would be infuriated if they learned that they were being observed, followed, or otherwise scrutinized based solely on their race or the color of their skin. It’s insulting and abusively judgmental. It’s simply wrong. Good people shouldn’t feel the weight of judgment based on ignorant perceptions. But that holds true regardless of the circumstances. It’s just as wrong if someone is discriminated against based on cultural differences, the way we dress, our age, gender, or any other characteristic that makes us unique and special as human beings. This is a perspective commonly shared and universally understood.

But by the same respect, it also shows extreme prejudice to pass judgment on an entire industry or profession based on the bad decisions of a few misguided individuals. What truly makes the subject polarizing is when we’re given the impression that racial profiling is accepted or commonly practiced. It is the insinuation that retail loss prevention personnel are ignorant, uneducated and poorly trained. It’s a disregard for the legitimate surveillance and apprehension process, and the meticulous effort that goes into making the process valid, objective, fair, safe, and accepted. To throw a blanket over an entire industry due to the foolish or misguided actions of a few individuals is completely unfair in its own right. It’s insulting, and an unmerited and uninformed indictment of what we do.

So where does all of this leave us? We can agree that racial profiling is unethical and unacceptable. We can say that such discrimination is simply not part of any legitimate loss prevention program. We can rant that it’s insulting and unfair to suggest that racial profiling is common practice. However, if that’s as far as it’s taken, these are just seen as hollow words. All it takes the foolish actions of a select few to scar an entire industry.

Theft and fraud cost retailers tens of billions of dollars every year. Loss prevention is a legitimate and viable profession that is crucial to the success of the retail industry—an industry that accounts for trillions of dollars in sales, is essential to the nation’s economy, and employs more people than any other privately held group in the world. With that in mind, retailers can’t and won’t tolerate such foolish and irresponsible decisions. Society won’t tolerate these conditions. Customers are guests, and deserve the right to be treated fairly and respectfully when they visit our stores. We must not allow narrow-minded perceptions to taint our company culture or compromise the business in any way. We have to take a stand out of respect for our company, our employees, our customers, and our communities.

quote from President Barack Obama

So what do we do? Have we done enough to clarify our position and eliminate both the concern and the perception? There has to be answers. There has to be action. But there also has to be a plan that reinforces our position and fortifies the industry best practices that define any legitimate loss prevention program. As an industry, we need ensure that our position is crystal clear.

The Customer Bill of Rights

National attention was once again focused on the subject following allegations made by several African-American shoppers that they were the victims of racial profiling while shopping at prominent department stores in New York City. As a result of the controversy, Reverend Al Sharpton, the National Action Network, and other civil rights leaders met with a coalition of retailers, community groups, and the Retail Council of New York State in December of 2013 to discuss the subject of racial profiling and seek answers. Among the retailers involved in those meetings were representatives from Barneys, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, and The Gap. One of the more prominent results coming out of those meetings was the drafting of a Customer Bill of Rights.

The one-page document drafted by the Retail Council of New York State declares discriminatory /racial profiling is an “unacceptable practice and will not be tolerated,” and further identifies a commitment from the retailer “ensuring that all shoppers, guests, and employees are treated with respect and dignity and are free from unreasonable searches, profiling, and discrimination of any kind” in the stores. The agreement further states that employees are required to “respect the basic civil and legal rights of any person suspected” of a crime, and workers who violate their employers’ prohibition on profiling will be disciplined and could face termination of employment. Retailers have agreed to post the bill of rights in common areas of the stores, available upon request, and clearly placed on store websites.

quote from Al Sharpton

Building the Document

Retail Council of New York State President and CEO Ted Potrikus, who was directly involved in the drafting of the document, provided LP Magazine with an insightful look at the construction of the Customer Bill of Rights. He described how the retailers involved in the process brought together their policy-and-procedure documents, which became the foundation of the project and largely contributed to the final result.

“Across the board, all of the companies involved provided policies specifically prohibiting profiling. It was part of their operating policies. It resonated in their observation and surveillance practices. It was part of their training,” Potrikus said. “We were shown industry best practices, training, and education programs. It was all very impressive. They made some really solid points, and there was an overall recognition of the challenge. So many retailers have gold standard asset protection policies, and we took full advantage during the process.”

Potrikus further shared that there was dialogue revolving around some of the prominent challenges facing retailers, such as organized retail crime (ORC) and the sophistication of the criminal element involved in various types of criminal activity. He added that this wasn’t lost on the audience.

“I think that this entire process also served as an eye opener for the civil rights leaders as well as others that were involved; some of whom have specifically shared with me that they gained a whole new respect and appreciation for the complexity of the profession and the challenges for those involved,” Potrikus said. “By the same respect, I think the retailers learned a great deal as well, and gained a better perspective and a deeper appreciation of what these organizations are trying to accomplish. We set a strong foundation and some positive momentum that will benefit everyone moving forward.”

Unfinished Business

Sharpton hailed the “best practices” agreement—the first of its kind between community leaders and the retail industry—as a step in the right direction. However, Sharpton emphasized that the Customer Bill of Rights document is just the beginning of a process, not its conclusion. He said community groups would continue to work with retailers until they could “guarantee shop-and-frisk is something of the past.”

Protrikus agreed, stating that “It establishes the level of expectation that customers can have when they come into the store, and the way that they can expect to be treated.” However, he added that, “This is intended to be a living, breathing document. It has to be fashioned based upon the needs and environment surrounding the specific retailer, and modified when necessary to reflect the intended purposes and objectives.”

For example, many retailers may not have security guards or dedicated loss prevention personnel in every store. Yet the general concepts should apply to every employee, regardless of whether or not they can apprehend a shoplifter. In those circumstances, the document may require some minor revisions, and the verbiage should be modified to better reflect that message. Amendments to the text would be fairly simple.

While the agreement is a positive step, a Customer Bill of Rights isn’t in and of itself a solution to the racial profiling issue. Generally speaking, the concepts outlined in the document would be considered universally accepted industry best practices. The message is strong, the motive is pure, and the intent is clear. However, the document can’t, won’t, and was never intended to stand on its own.

quote from Jay Z

The Customer Bill of Rights is a statement of expectations, and a commitment by the retailer to respect and follow the guidelines detailed in the document. It does not specifically describe how each company will address the subject of racial profiling, how the guidelines will be implemented and enforced, and what proactive steps will be taken to inform and educate the employee base. That in particular has been appropriately left for the individual retailer to determine a strategic course of action that will lead to the desired outcome.

We may consider this and similar efforts to provide building blocks rather than definitive solutions. But as is often true with such projects, the exercise was just as important as the final product. The coalition involved in the process had a common objective, a collaborative strategy, open minds, and a positive approach. It was refreshing to hear words like “appreciation,” “partnership,” and “respect” coming out of the discussions. It can’t erase the limitations and bad decisions of a select few, but it can reflect the desire and determination of the greater good to influence change and overcome those shortcomings. This not only raises awareness of the problem of racial profiling, but also of the steps that have been taken to address the problem through the public voice, the business doctrine, and the collective action.

You can review a complete copy of the Customer Bill of Rights by visiting retailcouncilnys.com.

A Matter of Policy

Companies use policies to define the rules, principles, and protocols that will guide important actions and decisions. The policy is a statement of intent, that is designed to ensure that a position or approach held by the company is translated into the fabric of the organization and followed by the employee base. However, drafting effective policies requires more than simply putting pen to paper. Appropriate steps must be taken to ensure that the policy is clearly stated, communicated, understood, implemented, enforced, and thereby owned by the entire organization. Most retailers have a firm grasp of this process, investing in the resources and collaboration necessary to construct policies that hold value and meaning to the organization.

Following the recent events in New York City, one particular media outlet suggested that “No retailer in North America has ever had such a policy [against discriminatory/racial profiling].” Whether misguided, uninformed, or simply intended to get a rise out of readers, such comments are not only ridiculous, but reckless and disrespectful to the industry as a whole. When dealing with a topic of this magnitude, our collective voice should be focused on solutions rather than sensationalism; dealing with facts rather than short-sighted conjecture. Frankly, it impedes the efforts of the retail community and the progress that has been made.

There are without question retailers across the country with specific policies that address the issue of discriminatory/ racial profiling. Many others address the subject in other ways, such as through their policies pertaining to observation skills, requirements for surveillance, and even customer service policies. However, it would be equally remiss to suggest there’s not additional progress that can be made to address these and similar concerns. Companies that don’t have specific guidelines should consider drafting and implementing policies that make their position absolutely clear. It’s also important to consider that our company policies are intended to be living documents so that they remain relevant and represent the culture, perspective, practices, and position of the organization. Reviewing existing policies and programs should be an ongoing process.

The Elements of Observation

Behaviors: The way that we conduct ourselves in response to our environment; which include the actions, reactions, and manner of conduct that may point to theft and dishonesty.

Indicators: Relevant information that reflects the intention or capability to follow a particular course of action, giving us grounds to believe that theft or other dishonest activity may take place.

Means: The instruments by which an act can be accomplished or an end achieved, which include the resources and tools that support the ability to commit dishonest acts.

Opportunity: Advantageous circumstances and the related prospects that support the potential or capability to commit dishonest acts.

While not a clear sign of a person’s intent, these are the only acceptable criteria for placing someone under surveillance. It is the sum total of everything that you observe that should guide your decision making.

Even when companies have pristine policies and principled intentions, every organization is still made up of individuals, and people make mistakes. We all have our own strengths and opportunities. People can show poor judgment. By the same respect, there are also those that simply have skewed perceptions and misguided perspectives. Our individual makeup can be shaped by any number of influences that can persuade our thought processes and power our decision making. This is why effective, well-written, and enforceable policies are so important. These are also some of the reasons why strong training and awareness programs so critical.

The Power of Information

Discriminatory/racial profiling is often fueled by ignorance, which is a nemesis faced in many of our personal and professional challenges. However, identifying the problem can also provide us with a clear path to solutions. Ignorance, by common definition, is the state of being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed. By using the power of information, we can overcome many of the hurdles that stand in our way.

Training and awareness programs are key aspects of most loss prevention strategies. We use them to show employees how loss prevention concepts can and should be embedded in their everyday responsibilities. We use them to help keep our customers and employees safe. We engage our employees with strategies that reduce losses and enhance profits. We also build upon fundamental training and awareness strategies to develop our loss prevention teams.

Effective training and awareness initiatives drive our messages and instill a sense of ownership in the core competencies that define our loss prevention programs. This is grounded in many of our fundamental lessons, which infuse key principles and definitive expectations into the core of our training and development. Our commitment to these lessons provides a straightforward path for our teams, and a strong foundation to guide the decisions that follow. These same concepts must reach beyond the LP office and extend into the stores.

Yet while the fundamental concepts of loss prevention may not significantly change, we are an integral cog in an evolving wheel; and therefore must continue to learn and develop in order to meet the mounting needs of the profession. Our training and awareness agenda must consistently reflect the primary messages and competencies that are essential to the industry. This is not an agenda that we can ever outgrow or rise above regardless of our years of experience, level of expertise, or hierarchy within an organization.

Behavioral Detection and Prioritization

As part of this year’s National Retail Federation LP conference, Bill Titus, managing director, retail group at PricewaterhouseCoopers and former head of LP at Sears Holdings, and Read Hayes, PhD, research scientist with the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC), hosted a keynote session on the racial profiling debate.

Titus began the session by clarifying a shared perspective on the subject. “Discriminatory and racial profiling is absolutely unacceptable and absolutely wrong,” he stated. However, he also commented that while profiling has taken on a negative connotation and is now linked to discrimination, profiling in its purest sense is not necessarily a negative thing. When used correctly, it can be a legitimate and valuable tool. It is when profiling leads to a predisposition of bias that the practice becomes tainted and the purpose is lost.

“It is our job to protect our company, our assets, our employees, and our customers. In the process, we’re looking for patterns and correlations that would indicate potential dishonesty. It’s how we bring our team in and how we train them that should determine the process and the outcome,” said Titus.

five steps apprehension processLet’s take this concept in a forward direction. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines profiling as “the act or process of extrapolating information about a person based on known traits or tendencies; specifically the act of suspecting or targeting a person on the basis of observed characteristics or behavior.” This, in fact, directly supports the “elements of observation,” a core loss prevention lesson and evidence-based approach that is founded on the concept of initiating our surveillances based upon the behaviors, indicators, means, and opportunity that reveal a potential for dishonest behavior. Biases and prejudice—whether racially based or otherwise discriminatory—have nothing to do with the surveillance and no legitimate bearing on the decision-making process. It’s not only wrong, but an abuse of our efforts and resources.

Dr. Hayes then took the conversation to the next level. “We take in this information to make better decisions. But we’ve got to quantify that information and be very deliberate and targeted in what we do,” he said. “When we make errors in what we take in, we can make errors in our interpretation, which can lead to errors in our responses. What we do must be very logically-based and evidence-based.”

Hayes stressed the need to focus on clusters of cues that fall in context with the particular situation being observed, and the totality of information must be considered. Based on evidence and logic, this also involves observing and understanding stable differences that are behaviorally based, drawing inferences derived from experience, and prioritizing those differences based on the specific circumstances surrounding that behavior. “We refer to the process as behavioral detection and prioritization, or BDP,” he said. “This is a protocol that’s grounded in theory and supported by evidence.”

“We should be very proud of the things we do to protect our companies, our customers, and to resolve dishonesty,” stated Titus. “We’d love to have your thoughts and input.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: LP Magazine is a supporter of the LPRC. We encourage all retailers and solution providers to consider joining the research organization and use its resources and research findings to build better LP programs based on evidence-based best practices. To learn more, visit lpresearch.org.

Celebrating History

On July 2nd of this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Serving as the nation’s premier civil rights legislation, the Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act represents the desire of the American society to move forward and beyond the limited channels of narrow perceptions. While legislation alone cannot end discrimination or the destitution of closed minds, by opening the door to further progress we can then see the broader possibilities.

As recent events have clearly shown us, there is still progress that needs to be made. Poor decisions, flawed thinking, and veiled intentions continue to obstruct the course. But we are moving forward, and we’re on the right path. Our common commitment may not be an end-all solution, but it certainly points the way.

Have you done your part? Is your program grounded in the building blocks that support good decisions? Isn’t it time we knew for sure? We can no longer just turn our heads.

This article was first published in 2014 and updated in March 2016.

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