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.

It was Dillard's lack of response to complaints in the St. Louis area that led the NAACP regional office to call a "selective buying campaign" against the company in 1985. Among the NAACP's concerns were Dillard's catalogues that only featured white models.

"We couldn't get any answers," says Ina Boon, the NAACP's director of Region 4.
The company finally responded when Dillard's board member John Johnson, owner of Johnson Publishing Company, which publishes Jet and Ebony magazines, arranged a meeting between company officials and the NAACP in July 1986. Dillard's signed a "fair share agreement" with the NAACP. While neither Dillard's nor the NAACP would release the exact terms of the agreement, it included pledges that the company would hire and promote more minorities, increase business with minority-owned companies and include more minorities in its advertising.

But Dillard's level of commitment became suspect, and the NAACP received little follow-up information from the company. Last year, when the NAACP issued report cards on 40 companies with similar fair-share agreements, Dillard's was one of five that received failing marks.

"Dillard's has not lived up to their agreement with us," says Fred Rasheed, national director of the NAACP's economic development office. "It is one of the worst companies in America."
The company, which has provided virtually the same statement to the NAACP year after year, has only released general information on its commitment to recruiting minorities and giving money to minority causes, Rasheed says. The NAACP would not release that information.

But in the areas in which it pledged to improve, Dillard's has done little, if anything.

The only minority-owned product known to be featured at Dillard's stores is Fashion Fair, a cosmetic line owned by Johnson.

In its advertising, in six catalogues and sales-promotion materials reviewed last week by New Times, 20 of the more than 150 models featured were minorities. Three of the smaller publications contained no minority models at all.

In the hiring and promoting of minorities, it's hard to tell where Dillard's stands. But some past statements by the company are descriptive.

"It's been our past experience that very few minorities apply, because, unfortunately, retail as a career faces many negative attributes such as long hours, days of workweek required, and compensation as related to other industries," reads one company statement. "Unfortunately, this situation results in a lack of interest by many Africans, including minorities, in even considering retail as a career path."
Complaints of discrimination have come from Dillard's employees, too.
A former vice president of personnel alleged he was fired in 1983 after attempting to set up an affirmative action program in the company. In a lawsuit, Archie Crittenden alleged that he was ordered "on numerous occasions not to hire any more blacks." The suit also claims a black employee's desk was moved out of view of department-store founder William Dillard. The complaint was dismissed.

More recently, Nancy Griddine, a former manager at a Kansas City, Missouri, Dillard's store, won a lawsuit claiming she was retaliated against for filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, and then wrongfully terminated. Among other things, employees forged her signature on documents, saying they had counseled her before they fired her. She was unable to prove, however, that she wasn't promoted because of her race.

Since her trial ended in April 1991, Griddine has gone so far as to organize a group of 25 former black employees who believe they were victims of discrimination. She has lectured at local churches and at NAACP meetings.

She has testified in two other discrimination trials against Dillard's--both of which were unsuccessful. Another trial is pending.

"We've been the subject of derogatory remarks, been discriminated against and retaliated against, and very few of us will ever get promoted," Griddine says. "Mine was not an isolated experience.

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Dave Newbart