NEW YORK — Recent allegations of racial bias in department stores were tackled in a three-and-a-half hour New York City Council hearing at City Hall Wednesday. The hearing was convened by the Committee of Civil Rights and the Committee of Oversight and Investigations.

This story first appeared in the November 21, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The forum stemmed from recent racial profiling allegations leveled against Macy’s and Barneys New York, whereby three black shoppers were detained by the New York Police Department after making purchases at the stores. In addition to lawsuits filed against the stores, the City and the NYPD, New York’s Attorney General is investigating the allegations.

Rev. Al Sharpton; Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Patricia L. Gatling, commissioner and chair of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and Kirsten John Foy, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the National Action Network, were among those who testified at the meeting. Representatives from Macy’s, Barneys and the NYPD were not present. Both Macy’s and Barneys sent letters providing testimony, while the NYPD did not.

Gatling said the Human Rights Commission sent out letters to 17 chief executive officers of the largest retail stores on Nov. 13, asking about their loss prevention policies, records of those accused, whether police are in their retail locations, their relationship with the police and thefts that have occurred. She has asked for a response by Friday. If the retailers don’t respond, they will be subpoenaed.

New York City Councilwoman Deborah L. Rose, who chaired the meeting, said she was “really disturbed” to hear there allegedly are holding pens and detention cells in certain retail stores. “That’s what I’m asking them about,” said Gatling. “We need to hear from retailers about what’s going on and be fact-driven.” She said she’s reached out to stores such as Sears, CVS, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.

“Today’s allegations bring a new spin on an old assumption. If you paid that much, you must have committed fraud,” said Jumaane D. Williams, chair of the City Council’s Committee of Oversight and Investigations. “I’m offended that Barney’s and Macy’s are not here. I think it’s insulting not just to the City Council, but to the city of New York and the people who shop there. I’m also offended that the New York Police Department decided not to come.”

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Macy’s letter, which was read to the packed chamber, said that Robert Brown, the actor who stars in the HBO series “Treme,” filed a lawsuit against the retailer on June 12, but hasn’t responded to requests to meet. “There was no evidence that Macy’s was involved,” the letter said, noting that the retailer will not tolerate racial profiling. Barneys’ letter said it has a 90-year history in New York City and “zero tolerance” for any form of discrimination. It also said that the company had “no involvement” with the two people who were stopped after they left the store, and detailed the incidents and human rights attorney Michael Yaki’s findings, which were detailed in a report commissioned by the store and released Tuesday.

National Action Network’s Foy spoke about a “dangerous alliance” between retailers and the NYPD. Barneys, Macy’s and the NYPD “maintain a clandestine relationship,” which retailers and the NYPD don’t want to make transparent, alleged Foy. The NYCLU’s Lieberman noted that the Attorney General’s investigation into Macy’s and Barneys “is not sufficient.”

“We’ve asked them to investigate the NYPD’s role in ‘shop and frisk,’” said Lieberman. She said she has pages of questions, such as: Is there a special NYPD squad assigned to department stores? How do they identify suspicious behavior? Who is watching how they perform these tasks? And what is the procedure for retail jails? “We have serious concerns about their very existence. There’s something offensive about operating them.” Lieberman noted that department stores have video cameras every 10 feet. “Where’s the video camera to capture the interrogation that goes on?” asked Lieberman.

Bertha Lewis, founder and president of Black Institute, said, “This is a bigger problem than Macy’s and Barneys. This is about money, honey. The current buying power of African-Americans is over $1 trillion and should reach $1.3 trillion by 2017.” She said that the “unique and aggressive” spending of African-Americans “should warrant people to pay attention to us and stroke us, as opposed to profiling us.”

Sharpton contended these incidents could not have happened “without collaboration with somebody in store.” He said it’s clear “we can’t allow this to continue.” Sharpton said he wants to know the facts and wants to “save our dollars for those who respect our dollars.”

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