A Closer Look at Dillard's

Shannon McDowell was a young African-American on his way up — his expansion plans coinciding with those of the company he worked for, the Louisiana-based Hibernia Bank, looking to move into Texas.

The bank teller had just moved to Orange in April 2001 to begin training for a branch manager position. McDowell was in a new place, far from family, but he knew one thing he could count on was Dillard's.

"I've been shopping at Dillard's all my life. I know the layout," says McDowell.

He'd ordered some shoes from Dillard's in Baton Rouge, but when they arrived, they were defective. He went to several Dillard's stores trying to exchange them, finally finding a pair of brown shoes at the Dillard's in Beaumont. He was in a rush because he also is a minister and was supposed to speak at a church that weekend. The shoes cost $10 more than he'd already paid, so he approached the manager, asking if he could have a courtesy discount for all the time and effort he'd put into trying to find a replacement. The manager said no, and when McDowell expressed his disappointment, the manager called security.

When McDowell tried to explain what had happened, the security guard told him that he was a police officer and McDowell should shut up. McDowell asked for his name and badge number and tried to leave. "That's it," the officer said. "You're under arrest."

"I knew he was going to handcuff me, but he wanted to throw me to the ground. I didn't want that to happen. How humiliating. I had on my company's shirt, my company's name tag," McDowell said. The officer threw him into a counter. McDowell was taken to jail, where he spent several hours and was charged with disorderly conduct, a class C misdemeanor.

It took him a week to tell his parents what had happened.

Dillard's is the only major department store chain to still use off-duty police officers. Critics say this system just doesn't work — that officers are trained to apprehend suspects, to deal with them in criminal situations. It takes an entirely different mind-set to see people as customers and to deal with them without handcuffs and guns (see "Hard Sale").

But while managers at Eddie Bauer and other retail chains have stepped away from using law enforcement officers, Dillard's prefers them, telling its managers they need special permission to employ someone else.

And it is these officers working off-duty at Dillard's who have been involved in more deaths than in any other retail chain in the United States. Four of them occurred in Texas.

Chris McGoey, a security consultant for major department stores, says combining off-duty cops with no training and no supervision "sets up an accident waiting to happen.

"You can't employ people that are carrying deadly weapons…and just turn them loose without any…guidelines, without any limitations on how to act or when not to act."

There are also complaints of racial discrimination against Dillard's. All but one of the men killed in scuffles with Dillard's security were minorities. And most of the complaints filed against Dillard's are from minorities, who say the chain subjects them to a different level of scrutiny than it does white shoppers when they step into one of the Arkansas-based company's stores. Dillard's denies targeting any ethnic group and says any employee who does so "has been and will continue to be disciplined, up to and including dismissal," according to a Dillard's statement.

But others say there is a gap between Dillard's policy and reality. "Race is the motivating factor in the decision to search, stop and detain shoppers at Dillard's," said Houston attorney Cletus P. Ernster III, whose firm has filed more than 100 cases against the chain.

As Ernster sees it, "Dillard's has created an atmosphere where you have a store full of suspects rather than customers."

McDowell, now a Hibernia vice president and living in Houston, is one of 18 plaintiffs who have joined in a case against Dillard's, alleging that the store regularly discriminates against people of color.

It is a charge that has dogged Dillard's for more than a decade — namely that Dillard's sets up a system whereby sales clerks, managers and security guards target or profile blacks and Hispanics and other minorities, that it regularly accuses them of shoplifting or disorderly conduct without cause, that it doesn't want them in its stores. Dillard's denies the allegations, saying that in 2002, of 261 million total customer visits, 73 million were from minorities. Similar accusations have been made against other stores. Last May Federated Department Stores, owner of Rich's-Macy's and Bloomingdale's, was accused of racial profiling for allegedly targeting minorities as potential shoplifters.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing