Back to All Testimony

Oral Testimony Before the New York City Council Regarding Shop-and-Frisk

By Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union

We are here today because of a public-private partnership between the NYPD and some retail stores for what they might call “loss prevention,” but what too many New Yorkers experience as “shop-and-frisk” – a program that appears to target people of color and subjects them to handcuffing, detention, arrest, interrogation and public humiliation for going shopping.

Just as “furtive movements” – like putting your hands in your pocket – is translated into suspicious behavior by the “stop-and-frisk” patrols in East New York and Harlem, it seems that using your credit card and trying to spend money at Barneys and Macy’s has become grounds for arrest – if you’re black or Latino.

And in classic style, when it comes to finding out what happened, the finger pointing begins: Macy’s, which has operated its own private jail at its 34th Street location for years, claims to be shocked that there’s profiling going on; the NYPD says it has only acted in response to complaints by store employees. Neither the stores nor the NYPD has demonstrated the respect our elected representatives deserve as they exercise their oversight function as all have failed to appear at today’s hearing in person, in the same room, at the same time to answer questions about their behavior.

This is a prime example of why New York City needs a strong and independent Inspector General to monitor the behavior of the NYPD and “shop-and-frisk” should be high up on the agenda of the new IG.

The State Attorney General investigated Macy’s for racial profiling five years ago and has announced another investigation of the stores in the wake of these recent incidents. That investigation is necessary, but not sufficient. Yesterday, several civil rights groups sent a letter to the Attorney General’s office asking him to investigate the NYPD as well. We urge the City Council to join in that request.

We have pages of questions for both Macy’s and the NYPD: Is there a special NYPD squad assigned to department stores? If so, what are their marching orders? How are they trained? How are they instructed to identify suspicious behavior? How are they supposed to interact with the stores and with the public? And who is watching how they do it?

In addition, we have many questions for the stores and the NYPD about their practices and procedures when arrests are made.

Perhaps the most disturbing unanswered question focuses on “retail jails.” We have serious concerns about their very existence. There is something profoundly offensive about any private entity operating its own private jail. As we see here, operating it with the full approval, collaboration and perhaps encouragement of the NYPD seems to be a vehicle for deflecting blame rather than serving as a protection against abuse.

Even if we could get past that very grave concern, questions remain. What are the rules governing “retail jails”? What are the arrest protocols? Who oversees these jails and this ominous public-private partnership? Where is the regular audit and who conducts it? Where is the COMPSTAT data on false arrests? The public has the right to know.

Department stores have video cameras every 10 feet. Where is the video camera to capture every interrogation that takes place? That video can show us whether and how shoppers are being threatened, interrogated, forced to sign confessions and barred from ever setting foot in the store again.

Right now, it seems that Macy’s and the other stores won’t tell. And the NYPD won’t tell.

As a result, we have yet another chapter in our “Tale of Two Cities.” What for white people is a shopping spree, for people of color is “shop-and-frisk.”

It is time to get to the bottom of this and close the book on this chapter of racial profiling.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union