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New York’s 'Shop and Frisk' Scourge

Racial profiling in luxury stores is causing way more problems than it’s preventing.
The Macy's flagship store in downtown Cincinnati. (PHOTO: TYSTO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Macy's flagship store in downtown Cincinnati. (PHOTO: TYSTO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

New York’s attorney general announced on Tuesday that he was launching an investigation into a disturbing pattern of certain customers being targeted and falsely accused of credit card fraud after shopping in Manhattan Macy’s and Barneys stores. On several occasions recently, black customers have been followed, interrogated, harassed, and handcuffed by cops after making big purchases there.

In April, after 19-year-old Trayon Christian bought a $349 designer belt at Barneys, New York City police officers detained and questioned him for two hours before releasing him with no charges. In a lawsuit Christian filed against the city, he said that the cops had asked him “how a young black man such as himself could afford to purchase such an expensive belt,” and accused him of having used a fake credit card to buy it. A few months later, 21-year-old Kayla Phillips said four plainclothes cops followed her to the subway after she bought a $2,500 purse at Barneys; she said they pushed her against a wall while accusing her of credit card fraud. Black customers shopping at Macy’s have reported similar experiences—one of whom, Treme actor Rob Brown, said he was handcuffed for an hour in a “holding cell” inside the store after buying a Movado watch. Brown is suing both the NYPD and Macy’s.

People can probably agree that it is wrong for people to be made to feel like criminals just for walking down the street, or down the halls of their own homes, or for paying for a nice piece of clothing with their own debit cards.

It’s still unclear what the official policy is here, if there is one, and whose idea this was. Vague reports from the Daily News suggest that the NYPD may have some sort of “task force” against credit card fraud and identity theft that’s sending plainclothes officers to stake out luxury stores in Manhattan. Representatives from Macy’s and Barneys have denied that they had anything to do with it. NYPD hasn’t commented, either, other than to tell the News that “there were 53 grand larceny complaints for credit card fraud at the Madison Ave. [Barneys] store and more than 47 arrests.” No word on how many of those arrests led to convictions, either.

Racial profiling is a tricky topic, and an issue that the NYPD in particular just can’t seem to shake off. Earlier this year, a federal judge declared the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice unconstitutional, precisely because it amounts to racial profiling. Research into just how effective the stop-and-frisk policy is in preventing crime remains controversial and hotly debated. (The legal battle will surely continue, as well, as an appellate court just granted a stay in the case on Thursday and accused the previous judge of bias.) But most reasonable people can probably agree that it is wrong for people to be made to feel like criminals just for walking down the street, or down the halls of their own homes, or for paying for a nice piece of clothing with their own debit cards.

As it turns out, racial profiling as an established and publicly-known policy might also have some interesting and unintended effects on crime. In a psychological study conducted a few years ago and just now published in the journal Law and Human Behavior, two researchers examined what they called “reverse deterrence in racial profiling.”

The psychologists, Amy A. Hackney and Jack Glaser, conducted an experiment where participants were given “extremely difficult anagrams” to solve in a classroom. (Example: “pghootrayp: topography.”) In one version of the experiment, the black members of the group were “obtrusively singled out for scrutiny by the study administrator,” and in another version of the experiment, the white study participants were. In both versions, the administrator was white. There was also a control group that didn’t experience any such accusations.

Hackney and Glaser found that black participants cheated at about the same level in all three situations, but that white participants were most likely to cheat when they were in the group where their black counterparts were being obviously accused of cheating. (Incidentally, the white participants also cheated at an overall higher rate than their black counterparts across the three experiments.)

From this pattern, the authors concluded that “profiling of minorities has a reverse deterrent effect, emboldening individuals ... because of a detected decrease in the probability of detection and capture.” They then added, “These results suggest that in the real world, racial profiling could increase crime among non-profiled groups, having an ironic, counterproductive effect.”

So, sure, extrapolating a limited experiment like this one to real-life crime patterns might be a stretch. Spontaneously deciding to cheat on a word test in a science lab is a little different from planning and enacting a high-stakes financial fraud scheme. But let’s just add this one on to the huge heap of reasons for a store not to accuse and assault their customers according to the color of their skin. It’s morally wrong, for one. It attracts a heck of a lot of terrible publicity, not to mention costly civil suits. And now, consider the possibility that targeting innocent black customers might just tempt some well-dressed and charming white con-men to come to the same store and commit the very crime that the ill-conceived “shop and frisk” policy is meant to prevent.