Tuesday, June 17, 2003

American justice in the corporate age:

Two ... plaintiffs, Barbie Sanchez, 16, and Jennifer Velez, 17, who are longtime friends, said they visited the flagship store last Oct. 5 to exchange a pink blouse for Miss Sanchez's mother, but were unable to because they lacked a receipt. When the girls tried to leave, they say, security guards stopped them, grabbed their shopping bags and led them to Room 140.

The girls said they were pressured to say they had stolen the blouse and other clothing. After two hours, the girls said, a man told them to sign some forms or they would be "in more trouble."

They signed the forms. Soon, they received letters from a Florida law firm, retained by Macy's to collect on its behalf, seeking more than $400.

"If we shoplifted," Miss Velez asked in an interview, "why didn't they send a cop to pick us up? They think you have no rights."

Macy's, in fact, is acting under a New York State law which allows its rentacops to detain suspects without access to counsel, and demand penalties of up to five times the item is stolen. As to the safeguards in these procedures, they're, well... in dispute. For instance, management claims that racial profiling is utterly banned.

But the suit brought last month by Sharon Simmons-Thomas, and others, who are represented by Mr. Thompson, a partner at the Manhattan law firm of Thompson Wigdor & Gilly, paints a much more menacing picture.

The detention system is predatory and racially biased, Mr. Thompson claimed, with security guards using racial codes to alert one another that a minority shopper has entered an area.

The lawyers said that 13 current or former security officials at Macy's have assisted in the lawsuit. One former worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said he thought the store set quotas for how many people should be detained on a given day. "At one time they put the numbers on the walls," said the man, who worked at Herald Square and left in a dispute.

Other states have similar laws, by the way, though New York's is unusually strict. And the story is worth reading for just for the picture of Macy's security headquarters, which looks like a movie set...


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