By Chris Lane
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The third factor is the deaths. Since 1994, at least six people have died in Dillard's after arguments with security officers. Four of the deaths have been in Texas: Houston, El Paso, San Antonio and Arlington. Two others occurred in Cleveland, Ohio, and Memphis, Tennessee. In all cases but one the victims were minorities. None of the victims had weapons. In some cases shoplifting was suspected; in others, arguments with security guards sparked the fatal encounters. There have been other isolated cases of death-by-security-guard -- in the Detroit area there were cases at a Rite Aid drugstore, a Kroger and a Lord & Taylor -- but Dillard's holds the record.
The suit that includes McDowell is scheduled to go to trial this April. In responding to the suits, Dillard's, in turn, has accused Ernster's firm, Chargois & Ernster, of "attempts to capitalize on race baiting allegations that have not one thing to do with any of the facts."
McDowell was angered and embarrassed by what happened, afraid for his job and his reputation. A prosecutor dismissed the first charge against him. When McDowell initiated his suit against Dillard's and the officer, the arresting officer refiled. This time it went to trial, where jurors found him not guilty. Jurors shook his hand afterward, McDowell said. Throughout, his bank stood behind him.
His suit states that other than a few basic orientation films about the losses Dillard's has had from thefts, the company makes no attempt to put the officers it hires through any specialized training program as security guards. In various depositions, Dillard's officials say they regard the training these people receive as law enforcement officers as vastly superior to anything the retail chain could provide.
Training isn't the only area in which Dillard's relies on law enforcement agencies. Dillard's also doesn't conduct background checks on its officers, saying that whatever the law enforcement agency did to check them out is good enough for it.
In November 2002, suspected shoplifter Guy Wills of Cleveland, Ohio, was killed by Dillard's guard and Maple Heights Police Department officer Jameel Talley. Two years before, that same officer had been fired from his job with another police department for violating deadly-force policies after he shot at a fleeing shoplifting suspect at the same mall.
Wills suffered head injuries that left him with internal bleeding and bruising and a fractured skull. Talley also broke Wills's collarbone in the scuffle at the Dillard's in North Randall, Ohio.
Talley was convicted in June of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison for Wills's death.
The NAACP has launched a few organized demonstrations against Dillard's, to little effect. Dillard's officials have stated in various depositions they see no reason to change their policies.
One attorney, who has tried cases against Dillard's and did not want to be named, said the chain tries not to respond to questions about its activities and added that, in fact, "If blacks were to boycott them, it would not care."
McDowell hasn't been back in a Dillard's since his arrest.
Dillard's represents the life's work of William T. Dillard Sr., the founder and former chief executive who died in 2002. Founded in 1938, the company comprises 338 stores in 29 states and is now run by his sons Bill and Alex. At least one of his daughters is a top officer; there are other family members employed as well. Dillard Sr. was known for his hard work and foresight in developing Dillard's. But that same attention to detail that made him such a success in merchandising also increasingly called him to account for his company's operations, a business that had few minorities at the upper levels of management. Gene Baker, a former Dillard's manager who was deposed last April, said he couldn't remember there ever being an African-American vice president at Dillard's. Another former senior officer at Dillard's charged that Dillard Sr. didn't want to even see African-Americans when he came in to work. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 1994, Dillard said his company worked hard to hire minorities, that it did not discriminate against them in hiring or as shoppers. He added, "Frankly we've had better luck with Hispanics than we do with blacks."
Read Hayes, senior consultant for Loss Prevention Solutions Inc., a consulting firm based in Winter Park, Florida, did a national survey in 1997 that found that in more than 100,000 shoplifting incidents across the country, 46.3 percent of shoplifters were white and 32.7 percent were African-American. Dillard's itself says that most of its theft is internal.
So then how does Dillard's explain the demographic data from Jefferson County, Texas? In 2001 the county had an estimated population of 249,640, of which 33.7 percent were African-American. In 299 trespass warnings issued from 1998 to 2002 at the Beaumont Dillard's, 250, or 83.6 percent, went to African-Americans. Trespass warnings are issued by Dillard's to tell people they are no longer wanted in its stores and will be prosecuted if they return.
Dillard's family members own 99 percent of the Class B voting stock and elect two-thirds of the company's directors, according to a December Hoovers Online report. In March, conservative African-American and former U.S. congressman J.C. Watts became the second minority member of Dillard's 12-person board.