Magazine article Security Management

A Picture of Profiling

Magazine article Security Management

A Picture of Profiling

Article excerpt

REPUTABLE RETAIL STORES ARE SOMETIMES HIT WITH potentially costly lawsuits in which a customer charges that store security used racial profiling in determining whom to monitor on surveillance cameras. These allegations typically are made in the course of wrongful detainment suits involving minorities who may or may not have shoplifted merchandise. In these cases, the plaintiff's attorney will obtain surveillance videotape during discovery, and in viewing the video, the lawyer will perceive that minorities are selected as surveillance subjects in disproportionate numbers as compared to the racial makeup of the store's population of shoppers.

WHEN SUCH CLAIMS are made, even retailers with outstanding antidiscrimination policies and practices may consider quietly settling the suit, particularly when the plaintiffs attorney threatens to take the allegations to the media and damage the reputation of the business. These settlements, which may be in the range of s100,000, may seem an easy way to end a lawsuit, but submitting to such tactics is a mistake that implies guilt and encourages litigation in the future.

Companies that have wrongfully been accused of racial profiling should fight the charges in court. To do this effectively, the corporate security manager must give defense attorneys a crash course in surveillance operations so that the company's lawyers know how security officers choose their targets and why the plaintiff may have been monitored while in the store. Defense attorneys essentially need to understand that no one can ascertain why a particular person is the subject of surveillance simply by viewing a few hours of the store's security tapes.

Seeing is misleading. Despite the well-worn "truths" about pictures, such as "seeing is believing," and "pictures don't lie," a portion of surveillance videotape taken out of context can be misleading. Yet in many racial profiling cases, the plaintiff's central evidence is videotape of a store's surveillance activities. And these seemingly damning images are given added impact when backed up by testimony from a security expert. But these so-called experts (in one case, such an "expert" turned out to be a law clerk) have typically done nothing more than view the store's video, count the persons subjectively judged to be surveillance subjects, and list the percentage of subjects by race.

There are several problems with using video as evidence of profiling. Security should make sure that the company's defense attorneys are aware of each of these so that the defense team can help jurors see the real picture.

First, experts for the plaintiff often fail to note any criteria they used in identifying subjects. For example, in one case, a plaintiffs expert counted any minority captured on tape, even those who might have been caught in the background while the cameras focused on a white suspect. In another case, security was monitoring the activity of one African American male who was standing near three other minorities. The plaintiffs expert counted all four men as under surveillance, thus boosting the ratio of minorities who appear to have been monitored by store security.

Second, a general review of a few hours of videotape is not statistically significant and cannot validly be used to draw any conclusions. The reviewer has no way of knowing why someone might have been targeted in the first place--the person might have put something in his or her pocket just before security began recording, for instance.

The security manager should explain to the defense attorney how the typical central station operates. It may be helpful for the attorney to tour the store's monitoring station to see how and why certain people are targeted. For example, in a typical large department store, the central station security officer must continuously monitor between 20 and 30 small monitors at one time. One or two larger monitors are used to view and record only the highest priority events. …

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