A white mother and her 10-year-old Black daughter were stopped by a Southwest employee and two Denver police officers after a flight attendant found them suspicious and suspected the mother of human trafficking.
Mary MacCarthy and her daughter Moira flew from Los Angeles, California, to Denver, Colorado, on Oct. 22, with a stop in San Jose after they received news that MacCarthy’s brother died the night before.
“I'm a single mom, he's like a father figure to my daughter. So we were both very much in shock. We hadn't slept. It wasn't the easiest travel,” MacCarthy said.
After landing in Denver, they were pulled aside on the jet bridge and confronted by the officers and a Southwest employee.
MacCarthy learned they were pulled aside because a flight attendant suspected her of potential human trafficking, according to a report by the Denver Police Department.
The flight attendant told police she flagged the family as suspicious because they were the last to board the plane and asked other passengers to change seats so they could sit together. The flight attendant didn’t see the mother and daughter speak on the plane and claimed MacCarthy told her daughter not to talk to the flight crew, according to the police report.
MacCarthy disputes the claims that she and her daughter didn’t talk on the flight or that she banned her daughter from speaking to the flight crew.
Upon seeing the officers, MacCarthy said she went into “panic mode,” fearing they’d bring news of another death in family. When they questioned her and her daughter, she realized they were being stopped for an entirely different reason.
“They said, ‘We’re talking to you because you and your daughter were reported for suspicious behavior,’” McCarthy recalled. “That's when everything clicked in my brain. I've been a mother to a biracial child for 10 years, I'm aware of racial profiling.”
She took video of the incident in which her daughter is heard crying and MacCarthy said she’ll retain an attorney. Eventually, the officers and Southwest representative made it clear there was a misunderstanding and let them go.
“Throughout the encounter, my daughter was sobbing, and I told them, ‘Look, we're traveling for a death and she's a Black girl who's 10 but looks much older than she is. She unfortunately already has had charged encounters with police. Any kid's going to be scared in a situation like this,” she said.
The incident was closed as “unfounded” with no further action necessary, according to the police report.
Ten days after the incident, MacCarthy said she got a call from a human trafficking unit investigator with the Denver police, following up on the suspicions of human trafficking.
She’s now demanding an apology from Southwest Airlines, but hasn’t heard one yet.
Southwest Airlines said in a statement to NBC News they are conducting an internal review of the incident.
“We were disheartened to learn of this mother’s account when traveling with her daughter. We are conducting a review of the situation internally, and we will be reaching out to the customer to address her concerns and offer our apologies for her experience traveling with us,” the airline said.
The airline did not share why an employee found MacCarthy and her daughter suspicious, but said all employees undergo “robust training on human trafficking.”
Southwest declined to name the employee depicted in the video, saying in a statement the company respects "the individual privacy of our employees.”
Since then, MacCarthy said her daughter "clams up” when it comes to talking about the incident and the family has been left “deeply traumatized by the assumption that just because we don't have the same skin color we're involved in a very serious crime,” MacCarthy said.
"Before you call the police, stop and check your own possible biases ... We should all be more educated than that and more sensitive now in 2021,” she said.
Her lawyer, David Lane, told NBC News they’re investigating the incident and will reach out to Southwest’s legal department.
“Had this little girl been white there would have been not a raised eyebrow. So race was the only factor that triggered this call to the police,” Lane said. “It's Southwest Airlines that I have an issue with. And I think this is a civil rights violation because they are causing a paying customer of theirs to have to undergo the trauma of being stopped by the police in question like this, for no reason other than the race of Mary and that of her daughter.”