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Case of the Month: April 2009

Department of Human Rights finds probable cause that Mall of America engaged in racial profiling

Case 50196, Closed 2-6-09

Charging Party
Bobbie C. Allen Jr.
Minneapolis, MN

Respondent
Mall of America, 60 E. Broadway
Bloomington, MN 55425

"Enough, please go harass someone else," Allen finally said. The security officer then called for backup, telling Allen he had been uncooperative...

What the Charging Party Alleged

One day in June 2007, Bobbie C. Allen, Jr., an African American male, went to the Mall of America to have lunch with a female friend who worked at a Mall clothing store. While he waited for his friend to get off work, he bought a café mocha, sat down outside the store, and began to write in his journal. Not long after he sat down, a Mall security officer approached him and asked if he was interested in taking a survey regarding customer safety. He said he was not.

The security officer persisted, Allen declined again, but the security officer continued to question him anyway. Allen told her he was uncomfortable with the questions, and he was only at the Mall to have lunch with a friend. His friend, who is white, came out of the store briefly, said she would be ready in 20 minutes, and asked if Allen could wait. Sure, he said. The security officer then explained about the "survey" and asked Allen’s friend where they were going to lunch. His friend went back into the store without answering. The security officer continued the questioning, asking Allen where he shopped, how he knew his friend, and other personal questions Allen believed the Mall had no right to ask.

"Enough, please go harass someone else," Allen finally said. The security officer then called for backup, telling Allen he had been uncooperative. The security officer’s supervisor arrived and wanted to continue the questions. "Enough with this," Allen told her. He felt disturbed, shaken, and exhausted. He feared that if he tried to leave at that point, he would be accused of resisting.

He was then approached by a City of Bloomington police officer. He explained to the officer that he was just waiting to have lunch with his friend, who had told him to wait 20 minutes. The police officer asked him for identification, and Allen produced a State ID card. The officer then conferred with the Mall’s security personnel, and when he came back, Allen said that he wanted a report about the incident. The police officer told him he should just let the Mall security do its job, and walked away. The security officer who had first confronted him then told him that the reason he had been questioned about his activities was because he was writing. He would not be arrested, the security officer said.

Allen’s female friend arrived, and the two of them went to lunch.

in a charge filed against the Mall of America with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Allen stated that he believed he had been racially profiled by a Mall security officer when the officer questioned him about his activities. "I was detained for almost 30 minutes. I did not see white patrons being treated in the same manner." Allen alleged discrimination in public accommodations based on race, in violation of the Human Rights Act.

What the Department’s Investigation Found

In answering the charge, the Mall of America denied that it had racially profiled Allen or otherwise engaged in discrimination. It stated that its security officer had observed Allen, and considered his behavior of "observing people, watching stores, writing in a notebook and intermittently talking with a female" as suspicious. Because of this behavior, security officers determined that further involvement with Allen was necessary. When its officers engaged him in a security interview, Allen became uncooperative and police were called for further investigation. The matter was ultimately resolved when Allen agreed to produce his identification to police and he was cleared, the respondent explained.

In its investigation, the Department of Human Rights interviewed witnesses, including Mall security officers, and reviewed Bloomington Police Department incident reports as well as Mall security reports and field notes. According to information supplied by the respondent, Mall of America security officers engage patrons in "security interviews" between 70 and 84 times per week, on average. The officer who questioned Allen was a member of the Mall’s Risk Assessment and Mitigation (RAM) unit, which "specializes in behavior profiling." The RAM unit "is based on a technique that has been perfected over the years in Israel." Leaders of the unit received training in Israel, and are trained to look for "intent rather than means." The unit has eight full-time employees and is staffed each day of the year, according to documentation supplied by the Mall.

The RAM unit generates reports and field notes on suspicious persons, whether or not the individual cooperated during the security interview or if police intervention did, or did not occur, the department's investigation found. Some of the reports indicate the race of the suspicious individual; some do not. The field notes include check boxes to denote the suspect's race as Caucasian, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American and Other.

The department subpoenaed information on reports and field notes for a two-week period that included the incident involving Allen. In response to the subpoena, the respondent provided its report for the incident involving the charging party, but no other reports. The respondent's statement about the number of contact with "suspicious" persons that occur each week suggests "it is not likely that the security report for the charging party was the only such security report made during that two week period," the department concluded. The respondent also provided seven field notes; the department found it is likely that more field notes exist. "The respondent's failure to provide relevant information does not support its contention that its security practices are race and ethnicity neutral," the department found.

The department concluded that "rather than support the respondent's position, the records support the charging party’s contention that he was subjected to heightened scrutiny because of his race." The department noted that records supplied by the respondent show that it found suspicious a white man typing on a laptop computer, who was uncooperative with the security officers' attempts to ascertain why he was at the mall. But the officers choose not to escalate the situation by calling the police, but instead allowed the man to leave the mall when he identified his family. In contrast, a Hispanic man who cooperated with security officers by showing his identification and explaining his presence at the mall was subject to additional scrutiny, and mall security called the police. "The respondent’s security officer requested that the city police officer go so far as to run an Immigration Alien Query—even after the police officer had established the Hispanic man's identity. Records show that some white individuals were allowed to sit for hours, engaging in similar behaviors as the charging party (sitting and writing or typing), before officers approached them for a security interview, the department found.

One of the respondent's security officers indicated that Allen was deemed uncooperative, in part because he had objected to the officer's conduct as being racially motivated. "This further supports the conclusion that the respondent's stated reasons for selecting the charging party for additional scrutiny are a pretext for discrimination," the department found. The department determined that there is probable cause to believe that Allen was subjected to illegal discrimination because of his race, in violation of the Human Rights Act.

(Note: The case was closed by the Department of Human Rights on 2-6-09; in lieu of settlement, the charging party elected to sue privately.)

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