Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks to the media outside Macy's department store after meeting with company officials in New York in this Nov. 4, 2013, file photo. The New York City Council is asking 17 retailers about their policies as it looks into allegations of racial profiling.
NEW YORK — Probing allegations of racial profiling, New York City is giving 17 major retail stores until Friday to submit information on how they've dealt with shoppers suspected of stealing.
The City Council tackled the emotional issue Wednesday at a hearing that included statements from Macy's and Barneys New York denying allegations by customers that they had been singled out and followed.
City Council member Jumaane Williams calls the problem "staggering."
The stores did not send representatives to the session in the City Council's main chamber.
"I'm offended that Barneys New York and Macy's is 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," Williams said.
The NYC Commission on Human Rights has sent letters to 17 retailers — including Macy's and Barneys — requesting the following information: loss prevention policies; procedures for approaching and detaining individuals suspected of theft; records regarding all individuals accused of theft in the past two years; and what, if any presence, NYPD officers have in the retail locations.
The stores are: Century 21, Loehmann's, Sephora, Target, Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf Goodman, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Sears, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, The Gap, CVS, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, Macy's, Bath & Body Works/Limited Brands/Victoria's Secret.
Letters may be sent to additional businesses, but "we selected these locations based upon previous discrimination complaints against these stores, and the size and prominence of the stores," said Patricia Gatling, the city's human rights commissioner. "This is only the beginning of our investigation."
The Associated Press requested comment from each of the retailers by phone and email; only Sephora replied as of late Wednesday, declining comment.
While tensions over shoppers' charges that they are being followed in various stores have simmered for years, they've resurfaced again in recent months after several incidents.
A 19-year-old City College of Technology student, Trayon Christian, sued the NYPD and Barneys last month, claiming he was racially targeted after buying a $349 Ferragamo belt in April at the Madison Avenue store.
And Barneys customer Kayla Phillips, 21, filed a complaint with the city's police watchdog agency, saying she had a similar experience after buying a $2,500 Celine handbag in February.
Barneys CEO Mark Lee had apologized, saying "no one should go through the unacceptable experiences described by Trayon Christian and Kayla Phillips in recent media reports, and we offer our deepest sympathies to them both."
But the company said in a report issued Tuesday that its employees did not initiate any profiling, and did not call police requesting or suggesting that the customers be stopped or detained.
Actor Robert Brown filed a lawsuit against Macy's, saying he was stopped inside its flagship store in Herald Square in June after he purchased a $1,350 Movado wristwatch. Brown said he thought he was stopped because he is African-American.
Macy's has said it does not tolerate discrimination.
The Rev. Al Sharpton also testified at Wednesday's hearing, as did Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"It's important that we hear from both the department stores and the police department what on earth is going on when people of color go shopping and end up in handcuffs," said Lieberman.
No one represented the New York Police Department at the hearing.
Hip hop star Jay-Z, who is promoting a Barneys holiday collection, said he's working with the retailer on issues of racial profiling. But a launch party planned for Wednesday was canceled.
First published November 20 2013, 4:56 PM