At the end of last month, luxury department store Barneys found itself facing the wrong kind of publicity, when a black teenager named Trayon Christian said he’d been racially profiled there, detained after buying a belt that someone decided looked too expensive for him. Christian sued the store and the New York Police Department; then 21-year-old Kayla Phillips came forward, shared her own experience of being profiled after buying an expensive handbag, and announced her own plans to sue.
In response, Barneys met with the Reverend Al Sharpton and the Brooklyn chapter of his anti-racist National Action Network and promised to bring in a civil-rights expert, Michael Yaki, who Barneys CEO Mark Lee said would be provided with “with unrestricted access to all aspects of our store operations.”
Now Yaki has completed his preliminary report about the Christian and Phillips incidents. And — surprise! — it concludes that Barneys “did not request, require, nor initiate” the detainment of either Christian or Phillips. Instead it places the blame on the NYPD.
Several news outlets, including the AP and the Daily News, have reported in the past day that they obtained copies of Yaki’s report. So we did we, by emailing Yaki and asking for it. Yaki didn’t respond to our email. Instead, Joele Frank, a public relations firm with a long relationship with Barneys, sent it over, along with a helpful summary authored by Yaki.
In his executive summary, Yaki writes:
No Barneys employees determined that either Kayla Phillips or Trayon Christian should be questioned by the New York Police Department about their purchases at Barneys, or took any action evidencing a belief or suspicion that either had committed or may have committed any illegal act that required or requested intervention by either Barneys Loss Prevention staff or the NYPD.
He adds that Barneys Loss Prevention Department has “no policy, written or unwritten” that encourages them to racially profile customers; rather, it has a “formal anti-racial profiling policy.”
But the report also reveals that the NYPD’s Grand Larceny Unit makes regular, unscheduled visits to the control room where loss-prevention officers sit. On occasion, it says, the officers would “either request visual surveillance on an individual they had followed into the store, or on other occasions, would watch the monitors in the Control Room for a period of time.”
What the report doesn’t say is how the NYPD gained regular unrestricted access to the Barneys control room in order to follow customers they deem suspicious (in the Daily News, Sharpton raised the same point, asking reporters Kerry Burke and Ginger Otis, “Do they have policies in place (regarding) the NYPD? If so, what? If not, then you’ve turned over the civil liberties of your customers.”) In other words: Has Barneys granted permission for the NYPD to be there and watch its customers? Or is the store claiming that the police come in periodically without permission?
Yaki’s report says that in both the Phillips and Christian incidents, Barneys employees told the police that, in their opinion, there was no need to investigate the transactions. In the case of Trayon Christian, the report says, the officers commented that he was being “too fast” with his purchase. The security cameras zoomed in on his credit card while he was buying the belt, although, as the report puts it, “No one in Loss Prevention can recollect whether the zoom was at the request of the NYPD officers or a Loss Prevention staff member.”
In three separate places, the report mentions Barneys’ anti-racial profiling policy. And while Yaki is indeed a civil rights expert, an attorney, and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he’s also a “crisis response” expert, promising his clients a “rapid response and war room management” that are “seemlessly [sic] integrated into a client’s overall objectives and message.”
Between that and the fact that our email to Yaki was answered by Barneys’ PR firm, it’s a stretch to conclude that this report is completely independent. But a spokesperson for the store said we were wrong, explaining that while Yaki is a paid consultant, his conclusions were indeed independent. Our questions about Yaki’s compensation were met with this:
“Mr. Yaki has been retained by Barneys New York to review, top to bottom, with unrestricted access, the policies, practices, and procedures of its non-discrimination policy.”
OK, then. Yaki is now at work on a second report, which will examine Barneys policies in more detail and make recommendations. There’s no date set yet for its release.
The full report is on the following page.
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.