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During an after-Christmas sale last year, at the Dillard's store in Paradise Valley Mall, Billy Mitchell went to a sales counter to purchase a pair of pants. He gave the salesclerk a hundred-dollar bill and waited while the clerk got change from another part of the store.
As he waited, he claims, an off-duty Phoenix police officer working as a store security guard approached him and said, "Come with me and don't try anything stupid." The guard led Mitchell to a room upstairs in the store, accusing him of trying to make a purchase with "counterfeit or stolen money." He later paraded Mitchell in handcuffs through the store, finally letting him go after half an hour.
Mitchell wasn't charged with a crime in the incident, because the bill wasn't counterfeit.
Mitchell, a 17-year-old African American, is now charging in a lawsuit that he was targeted solely because of his race. Mitchell's suit alleges the above scenario and accuses the guard of falsely arresting and imprisoning him and of violating his civil rights.
While Dillard's denies the charges, Mitchell's case is one of a slew of racially charged complaints against the 223-store chain. Many of those complaints have been filed in federal courts, while others have been fielded by NAACP chapters nationwide. Over the years, the complaints have led to store boycotts and Dillard's credit-card-cutting ceremonies.
Dillard's, not surprisingly, also denies it discriminates against minorities. For the most part, the Little Rock, Arkansas-based company has fought discrimination and civil rights cases in court, and it has won some. But in 1986, in an agreement with the NAACP, similar to one recently signed by Denny's restaurants, Dillard's officials did pledge to improve relations with minorities both within and outside the company.
But Dillard's failed a progress report issued by the NAACP last year. A national NAACP official calls Dillard's "one of the most racist companies in America."
NAACP officials in Phoenix say they have tried to redress three complaints against Dillard's stores in the last few years, with no luck. Those are in addition to Mitchell's case, and that of three black teenagers who claim security guards followed their every move while they shopped at the Park Central Dillard's last May (Tailing Retailer," June 23).
Blacks, says Van Braswell, chair of the local NAACP's economic development committee, are refusing to shop at Dillard's. Like the teenagers, Braswell says he's been tailed by security guards.
"I'm a resident of Scottsdale, an attorney, and when shopping, I'm usually dressed in a suit," he says. "I don't believe I act suspiciously, yet I receive the same treatment as the teenagers. I'll leave you to form your own conclusions."
Local Dillard's officials wouldn't comment on specific allegations, but say their workers do not target African-American customers. "The policy of our officers is to protect our merchandise," says Bob Baker, in sales promotion for Dillard's. "We try to be very fair about this."
In other stores across the country, the reports are similarly disturbing. New Times located six lawsuits filed by customers against Dillard's, as well as four other individuals who have contacted attorneys and who are considering filing lawsuits.
Several of those individuals were arrested by local police following confrontations with security guards. But none was ever convicted of a crime.
In Memphis, according to a complaint filed in a circuit court, three teenage cousins were leaving Dillard's when a clerk shouted, "Hey, you." When they didn't stop--they say they didn't realize who the clerk was talking to--security guards wrestled two of the cousins to the ground, handcuffed them and searched their bags for a missing shirt, the teens claim. They were detained and released when the clerk found the shirt she mistakenly thought they had stolen.
One of the teens is legally blind and, because he was born with a condition known as hydrocephalus, has a shunt in his head. Dillard's only acknowledges detaining one of the teenagers--who has since filed suit.
A 17-year-old high school student shopping last February in Overland Park, Kansas, an upscale suburb of Kansas City, says security followed her and a friend through two Dillard's stores, even after she spent $60. When she asked a guard why he was following her, the guard asked her to leave. When she refused, complained loudly and asked to see a manager, he wrestled her to the ground, handcuffed her and charged her with trespassing. He didn't realize until later that she was seven months pregnant.
The trespassing charge was thrown out of court. Her attorney, James Green, plans to file assault and battery, false arrest and malicious prosecution charges.
Not every case involved teenagers. In St. Louis, the wife of a battalion fire chief claims a police officer struck her after she was detained by Dillard's security guards. The couple received an out-of-court settlement. Near Nashville, the director of the African-American Center at Austin Peay State University was arrested after he picketed a Dillard's store there, claiming security guards "shadowed" his three sons while they shopped and purchased several hundred dollars worth of merchandise. His case against the local police is pending in federal court.
Officials at Dillard's national headquarters did not return telephone calls from New Times.