Georgetown Shops, Police Will No Longer Use App to Discuss ‘Suspicious’ Shoppers

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Georgetown retailers will no longer use an app to report people they suspect of shoplifting or otherwise deem suspicious, after a recent Washington Post article raised concerns that the app was leading to racial profiling.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District said Sunday that it will take down a group on GroupMe -- which connected shop owners and employees with D.C. police -- after "legitimate concerns" arose about the use of the app, WTOP.com reported.

"While the app has been effective in deterring shoplifting, the news stories and the dialogue that followed have brought up legitimate concerns about the use of the app and its potential to wrongfully identify shoppers as shoplifters," BID spokesman Joe Sternlieb said in a letter Sunday.

Anyone wanting access to a similar tool in the future will have to complete "a robust anti-racial-profiling training program," he said. 

The Georgetown group launched on GroupMe in early 2014, collecting "nearly 380 users who surreptitiously reported on -- and photographed -- shoppers in an attempt to deter crime," the Post reported.

But the Georgetown BID found that, of the more than 3,000 messages sent since January, 70 percent of the people who were called "suspicious" were black, the Post reported.

And in some cases, the reports had little corroborating evidence.

For example, the Post reported:

"Suspicious shoppers in store," an American Apparel retailer posted in April last year. "3 female. 1 male strong smell of weed. All African American. Help please."

"What did they look like?" a True Religion employee in May last year asked an American Apparel retailer who had reported a theft. "Ratchet," the American Apparel worker replied, using a slang term for trashy that often has a racial connotation. "Lol."

"To be fair," the Washington Post reported, "police officers and others frequently press each other for more details, or correct users who veer into stereotyping."

The Post said that an employee at Hu's Wear shared an image of a tall, well-dressed African American man, saying he was "very suspicious" and "looking everywhere."

An employee at Suitsupply responded, saying, "He was just in Suitsupply. Made a purchase of several suits and some gloves."

Use of the app had led to "relatively few arrests," Sternlieb told the Post.

He told WTOP last week that app users are encouraged to call 911 first and only report criminal activity. He said last week that he had seen racial profiling, but only in about 14 of hundreds of GroupMe posts.

The Georgetown BID will now conduct a "top to bottom review of the public safety communication program," WTOP.com reported.

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