Just ask South Mountain High School students Taj Karim, Tajji Saladdin and Khalid Hasan. They say they were tailed in Dillard's at Park Central Mall last month for 30 or 40 minutes by a security guard and an off-duty Phoenix police officer. Yet they had done nothing more than shop.
Spokespeople for the security guards--off-duty Phoenix police officer Jerry Licata and an unnamed private security guard--say the officers were just doing their jobs.
The scene unfolded after school on May 25. The three cousins took the bus to Park Central Mall to take advantage of a sale at Dillard's. They were dressed fashionably, wearing backpacks and baggy clothes.
They headed for the men's section, grabbed two pairs of baggy pants and took them to the register, spending $40 to $50 between them. That's when they noticed they were being watched.
"I said, 'Damn, why they looking at us? I got money,'" says Hasan, 17.
After paying for the pants, they checked out the boxer shorts, but found them too expensive. They then went in search of hats. As the teens walked around the store, the officers followed, sometimes within feet.
Hasan remembers his cousin Saladdin saying, "I'm going to walk around in a circle, and see if that cop is going to follow me.' The cop was so close, it looked like Tajji and him were friends."
The teenagers went up to the third floor to see if the cops would tail them; they did. The teens went to the second floor. The officers continued to shadow them--literally, the teens and a witness say, within a foot.
"They were just right up on us, like we were being chauffeured around," says Hasan. "The employees were looking at us crazy like." At one point, they confronted the officers.
"Why are you following us?" Saladdin asked.
"We can go wherever we want," was the response. Vicki Wilson, who was shopping at Dillard's at the time, says the officers were so close to the teenagers that she "wondered if they had shoplifted something."
"They just seemed to be walking through the store," she says. "They didn't appear to be doing anything wrong, yet the officers were following them. I wondered if there was some kind of policy that if there is more than one African American in the store, follow them."
Dillard's officials say they won't respond to the teenagers' concerns unless they file a formal complaint against the store. Store manager Gary Borofsky does say that the policy is "not to follow someone around within one or two feet."
Bob Baker, in sales promotion for Dillard's, says that the officers probably followed the teens because they "started acting suspiciously [by] going to other floors . . . and wandering around."
Nazir Karim, Taj's father, responds: "That's no reason. That's what everybody does."
Officer Licata refused to talk to New Times. But through Phoenix Police Department spokesman Kevin Robinson, Licata says Dillard's workers asked him to keep an eye on the teenagers because they had backpacks.
"They thought that, in and of itself, was suspicious," Robinson says.". . . He didn't know what color they were. He didn't care."
Robinson says Licata denies following them so closely. And Robinson says they may have taken merchandise from one department to another--a security red flag.
After a while, the teens began telling other shoppers that they were being followed.
"They got awfully loud, and they were stopping people and pointing out that they were being followed solely because they were black," Robinson acknowledges.
Two other security officers later arrived on the scene.
Taj Karim called his father, who went to the store with his wife.
"I didn't want my son to be the victim of anything," Nazir Karim says. After talking with the officers, he drove the teens home. He says he plans to file formal complaints with the store and the police.
The teenagers say they've been watched by store security guards in the past--but never this intensely.
"It's happened many times," says Hasan. "I'm used to it. I just make them feel dumb. I just show them the money in my pocket.