Black shoppers walk down M Street NW in Washington, D.C., browsing through stores in the Georgetown neighborhood. (Photo Courtesy Georgetown Business Improvement District)
The mobile group messaging app GroupMe, owned by Microsoft, is claimed to have been a useful technological tool in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown district, helping business owners to connect with police in real time in their efforts to curtail crime and targeting shoplifters along the neighborhood’s popular shopping strip. Now the app is in the process of being taken down, because of possible racial profiling toward Blacks.
“The overriding goal of our retail community is to ensure that everyone who visits Georgetown feels welcomed, comfortable, safe, and that their civil rights and individual dignity are protected and respected. So long as there are questions about how this app is being used, this goal cannot be met,” wrote Georgetown Business Improvement District’s chief executive Joe Sternlieb in a statement, as cited in an Oct. 19 article in The Georgetowner.
An Aug. 10 investigative report from the publication, “Critics Claim Racial Bias in Georgetown Digital Crime Prevention,” noted that although the community worked to identify threats and prevent crime beginning with the app’s launch in March 2014, it also “illustrated a stark racial disparity in how crime and suspicious behavior are reported in the community, raising hard questions about the relationship between community policing and civil rights.”
The idea of using the app was introduced by Metropolitan Police Officer Antonial Atkins, who covers Georgetown. As a result, the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) began using the app as a go-between for retailers and police.
Unfortunately, the app seemed to create a mechanism for racial profiling, critics say. Murray’s article stated that between March 1 and July 1, warned messages sent on the app targeted 330 people of which 236 were Black (72 percent). Only 16 percent were White. Also, in terms of appearance, people with dreadlocks were often deemed “suspicious.”
The Georgetown shopping area is known for its wide variety of fashionable stores in Northwest, where it begins at M Street all the way to Wisconsin Avenue. Shopaholics can find medium to high end priced stores such as TJ Maxx, Alex and Ani, Lacoste, Ann Taylor, Dean and DeLuca, Banana Republic and many others.
One manager at the Nike store stated they used to use the GroupMe app but stopped it some time ago. A sales clerk at Barney’s New York said her manager was in a conference call. Ayana Ransom, a Black manager at All Saints, stated the app did help.
“Yes, there are a lot of pictures of African Americans on the app,” Ransom said. “The shoplifters don’t look at the prices, they bring in old bags and sometimes wear sunglasses.” She picked up two shoplifters in the last three weeks.
Two women, Stacy and Shaquanta, window shopping for fall fashions, said, “Basically, if you’re Black in America, you’re constantly under surveillance, you’re looked at frequently; honestly every day.”