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NY state probes shoppers' racism charges against Macy's, Barneys

Oct. 29, 2013 at 4:55 PM ET

People walk by a Barneys New York retail store in New York October 24, 2013.  A civil rights organization on Thursday demanded a meeting with the CEO ...
ERIC THAYER / Reuters file
A Barneys New York store in Manhattan on Oct. 24, 2013. The NY state attorney general has opened a probe into allegations of racism against Barneys and Macy's by black shoppers.

New York state's attorney general launched an investigation Tuesday into retailers Macy's Inc. and Barneys New York Inc., where black customers complained they were stopped by police after making luxury purchases.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman gave the two department store chains until Friday to turn over information about their policies for detaining and questioning customers.

But both department stores have fired back, denying any involvement in three of the four incidents that have ignited a firestorm of controversy.

"This was an operation of the New York City Police Department," Macy's spokeswoman Elina Kazan said in a statement, adding that store "personnel were not involved" in the incident.

Kazan was not immediately available to respond to questions about a second black shopper's similar allegations about an April incident.

Barneys Chief Executive Mark Lee likewise said his employees had no part in either incident involving black customers.

"We believe that no Barneys employees were involved in those incidents," Lee said after a meeting in Harlem with civil rights leader Al Sharpton and members of his National Action Network. "No one from Barneys brought them to the attention of our internal security and no one from Barneys reached out to external authorities."

An NYPD spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on Lee's remarks.

In letters to Lee and Macy's Chief Stores Officer Peter Sachse, released Tuesday, Schneiderman's office said it is investigating a total of four complaints from black shoppers who said in newspaper stories last week that at various times in the last eight months they were stopped by police after shopping at the two stores.

"The alleged repeated behavior of your employees raises troubling questions about your company's commitment to that ideal," wrote Kristen Clarke, who heads the attorney general's civil rights bureau.

Sharpton and other leaders on Tuesday called for a summit with a "broad section" of city retail executives.

"This must be done immediately," Sharpton said after meeting with Lee. "Not weeks — days, hours. There needs to be a meeting."

Barneys and the New York City Police were named in a lawsuit filed by Trayon Christian last week. The lawsuit said police had detained him in April for two hours after he bought a $349 Ferragamo belt, and they then released him without charging him.

Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old nursing school student, said she was surrounded by four undercover police officers in February after leaving Barneys with a $2,500 Celine handbag she had purchased.

Two Macy's shoppers have made similar complaints. One was actor Rob Brown of HBO's "Treme," who said he was handcuffed and held for an hour after purchasing a $1,350 gold Movado watch for his mother, the Daily News said.

Macy's denied any involvement in the detention of Brown.

The fourth complaint was filed by Art Palmer, 56, an exercise trainer from Brooklyn. He told the Daily News that he was surrounded by police, who demanded to see identification after he used his credit card to buy $320 worth of Polo shirts and ties at Macy's in April.

New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board is investigating allegations of improper police stops of Palmer and Phillips, spokeswoman Linda Sachs said on Tuesday. Macy's has not yet responded to Palmer's allegation.

In 2005, Macy's paid $600,000 to settle similar allegations that many of the chain's New York stores had targeted blacks and Latinos for particular scrutiny of theft, according to the New York Attorney General's office.

Police crime statistics show grand larceny has risen 31.6 percent over the past two years in the Midtown North precinct, which includes Macy's flagship store in Herald Square, and is up nearly 4 percent in the Upper East Side's 19th precinct, which includes Barneys New York.


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