Racial profiling in retail environments is unfortunately nothing new; many of us are all too familiar with “extra attention” while innocently browsing a store, and reports of incidents have seemingly been unceasing since the advent of social media. Whether being accused of stealing from the soon-to-be-shuttered luxury retailer Barneys or finding black beauty products locked away in a Walmart, #shoppingwhileblack—even as a celebrity—can be an unnecessarily fraught experience.
But for a group of black teens in Chesapeake, Va., it became a frightening one when they were locked inside a beauty supply store after being mistaken for shoplifters.
“My daughter and her friends won’t ever forget about that, so I just think that’s wrong,” father Reubin Houston told WAVY-TV of the confrontation, which occurred last Friday at Coco Beauty Supply in the Parkview Shopping Center, and resulted in police being called.
According to the store’s owner, the case of mistaken identity was reportedly rooted in a Dec. 28 incident where more than $1000 worth of merchandise was stolen by a group of black girls. Using store surveillance footage, Coco’s owner created flyers picturing the alleged perpetrators and distributed them among other businesses in the strip mall where the store is located, including a Subway sandwich shop a few doors down.
When Houston’s 16-year-old daughter and her three friends frequented the Subway less than a week later, they were reportedly followed by a security guard. After then walking into the beauty supply and purchasing a hairbrush, the store’s manager locked them inside and called Chesapeake Police.
“My daughter asked them, ‘Why? Why can’t we leave?’ She says, ‘You’ll find out,’” said Houston, recounting the confrontation on behalf of his daughter.
However, the tables were turned when “a quick investigation” by the police exonerated the girls, dissociating them with the teens pictured in the flyer. It would ultimately be Houston who filed a police report, alleging racial profiling. The store manager has since apologized for the error in judgment, saying she acted on the instructions of the guard, while the guard, in turn, denies this, despite helping to distribute the flyers created by Coco’s owner. Instead, the guard blames his involvement on the Subway employee who called him.
A written statement from the Subway employee read: “Served the girls then security brought us a picture of the suspects, noticed one was sitting eating and alerted security and dialed 911,” reports WAVY.
But if you cringed at the idea of police becoming involved and potentially escalating the issue, never fear: a spokesperson for Chesapeake’s force maintains the girls should not have been detained. Police are working with the city commonwealth’s attorney to determine how to respond, and abduction charges have so far not been ruled out. That said, WAVY notes that a section of Virginia Code may protect Coco Beauty Supply, as it provides that a shoplifting suspect can be detained for up to an hour if there is probable cause to believe a theft has occurred—though none occurred last Friday.
Of course, of bigger concern should be finding a long-term solution to the pervasive issue of racial profiling and protecting innocent shoppers like Houston’s daughter and friends from false accusations—let alone unlawful imprisonment.
“I’m personally thinking everybody is going to be a suspect if you have braids and weave and you’re black,” said Houston. “I mean, even the kids are suspects now. I guess mine was.”