Strobe Light Special

Shopping while black at Dillard's might get you cuffed -- or killed

According to the lawsuit, it was explained to Vaught that he fit the description of a man who'd "hit" the store earlier that day. Vaught insists that store personnel said they didn't care whether he had a valid gift card or not before ordering the security officers to escort him off the premises. Vaught claims a Dillard's employee laughed at him as he was led away.

"They're saying that since he looked like somebody who might have done something earlier, this is a basis for confrontation?" asks Chris McGoey, a California-based security consultant and vocal critic of Dillard's security procedures. "There's nothing in the law, or Dillard's policy, that allows something like that to occur."

But over the past decade-plus, dustups like Vaught's have occurred with increasing frequency at Dillard's stores around the nation, six times resulting in the deaths of customers at the hands of off-duty police officers. The most horrifying of these incidents involved Darryl Robinson, who was beaten, hog-tied and carted to an ambulance on a freight dolly by security officers at a Houston-area Dillard's following a verbal altercation in the store in 1994.

"We'd been falsely accused, mistreated, bullied and 
racially profiled": Tosha Jasper (left) and Denetra 
Hughley (right)
Becca Young
"We'd been falsely accused, mistreated, bullied and racially profiled": Tosha Jasper (left) and Denetra Hughley (right)

Robinson sustained injuries so severe that he lapsed into a coma and later died. His family later settled with the department store for an undisclosed amount after a jury ordered Dillard's to pay the family $1.5 million.

"The damages for a dead person were so modest that it indicates a compromise verdict," Dillard's attorney Brock Akers told the Houston Chronicle at the time of the verdict. "We're not disappointed with the amount."

While neither Robinson nor any of the other five deceased were carrying weapons, at least two of these deaths resulted from the discharge of a Dillard's security guard's firearm. According to a report in the Houston Press (a sister paper of the Riverfront Times), these two officers were exonerated, as was Dillard's -- the result of an ongoing legal tactic employed by company counsel, which argues that the triggermen were acting in official police capacity at the time of the altercations, therefore exempting Dillard's from liability.

"You are never justified in shooting someone who's fleeing a property crime unarmed," says McGoey. "Thousands of other retail stores out there operate without that level of force every day. But Dillard's has off-duty cops treating customers like they would a suspect in an alley at three o'clock in the morning."

By way of comparison, the department store Nordstrom says it hires its own loss-prevention personnel and puts them through extensive training and certification, prior experience notwithstanding. Conversely, since 1990 Dillard's has hired primarily off-duty cops as security guards and does not put them, or even the private security personnel it contracts with, through any sort of training.

"These are trained professionals who are hired from local law-enforcement agencies," says Dillard's spokesman Skip Rutherford, who declined to comment on the impending litigation, as did local defense lawyers from the Bryan Cave law firm. "When Dillard's uses private security guards, we go through companies that have strong training programs."

No other major department store chain in America regularly employs active off-duty police officers as security staff, says McGoey.

"The retail environment is unique," adds the security consultant, who has provided his services to Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Macy's and Wal-Mart, among other stores. "You want your customers to pick up merchandise and try it on. And yet you have officers who could look at that and say, 'Well, that's suspicious,' then take all these liberties that ordinarily wouldn't be available to private security entities or even a street cop. You can't just walk up to someone without just cause.

"Dillard's is trying to walk the fence and take advantage of the municipal immunity that police officers provide," continues McGoey. "When they get sued, that's their first defense: that the officer was not a Dillard's employee at the time. And yet he punches a Dillard's time clock and is protecting only Dillard's property. It's very arrogant."

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