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​​Illustration by Eva Vázquez​​​​

How to Prevent Profiling

​In recent years, racial profiling has become more prominent as a potential customer service hazard, particularly in the retail sector. During the past two decades, a who’s who of retail establishments have been accused of targeting racial or ethnic minorities when apprehending shoplifting suspects. These allegations have often resulted in litigation from customers and settlements spearheaded by plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Assessing the possible existence of racial profiling is a vital part of customer service. Retailers should strive to treat all customers as highly valued patrons; customers who believe that they have been mistreated because of their race or ethnicity are less likely to be loyal customers. Racial profiling is simply bad for business.

In addition, a company is liable for the actions of its employees. Claims of widespread profiling that have not been thoroughly investigated using modern scientific approaches can unduly harm retailers. Consequently, if someone reports that they have been profiled, the allegations should be investigated to the fullest extent possible.

Those responsible for conducting such investigations have a duty to determine whether there is a widespread problem or if the incident stems from a specific sales associate or loss prevention employee. The following offers some guidance on the proper assessment of racial profiling in a retail setting. 

First, retailers should proactively assess whether racial profiling exists before any allegation of profiling has been made. Taking the proactive approach helps insulate retailers from legal action; perhaps more importantly, it provides retailers an opportunity to remedy profiling before allegations occur and legal action is taken.

Second, in making an assessment, retailers should be cautious if they choose to use the population benchmark. The population benchmark holds that shopper demographics should mirror shoplifting apprehensions: if racial and ethnic minorities represent 30 percent of a store’s shoppers, the apprehension statistics for these groups should not exceed 30 percent. According to this benchmark, racial profiling is allegedly occurring if the demographic percentage is exceeded by a substantial margin.

Currently, this population benchmark is still the most frequently used standard to determine the existence of racial profiling in retail settings. Retailers use it as a monitoring tool. Prosecutors’ offices, after receiving allegations of racial profiling, typically use the benchmark to determine whether there is a problem. 

Nonetheless, this approach has recently been discredited for two reasons. Scientific evidence has found that, compared to the general population, racial and ethnic groups do not commit offenses at the same rates for all crimes—which is an underlying assumption of the population benchmark. 

Also, it is often extremely difficult to measure shopper demographics accurately, and inaccurately measuring the demographics of shoppers fundamentally biases the population benchmark method. For these reasons, racial profiling research has generally moved away from the population benchmark; yet, prosecutors investigating retail racial profiling have not yet made this switch. 

Retailers should consider replacing the population benchmark with the violator benchmark or, at the very least, using the two in conjunction. The violator benchmark compares the racial distribution of shoplifting apprehensions in a store to the racial distribution of larceny theft arrests in the immediate area—usually in the same police precinct. 

Thus, if the distribution of apprehensions contains substantially more minorities (say 80 percent) than larceny arrests in the area (say 50 percent), this is considered evidence of racial profiling in the retail setting. On the other hand, if the distributions are the same, there are two possibilities: no profiling is occurring, or retailers and private individuals in the area are all engaged in the same level of profiling as the retailer in question. Either way, the finding suggests that the retailer is not outside the norm in the area. This is a crucial and important discovery, and it is only uncovered by use of the violator benchmark. 

To make sure that a store is not profiling along with other stores in the area, retailers should consider conducting an audit study of the store in question. In an audit study, testers—similar to mystery shoppers—visit stores and determine, through the use of directed shopping episodes, the nature and extent of potential profiling. Experimental studies such as these are the gold standard for investigating discrimination.  

The audit study approach has benefits for both retailers and prosecutors. Commissioning a study by an independent entity allows retailers to determine the extent of profiling, if it is occurring, and this can lead to proactive measures that will address the problem commensurate with its magnitude. The results can also prove useful to retailers in litigation; if the study finds no evidence of systematic profiling, retailers have concrete scientific evidence to use in court.   


Shaun L. Gabbidon is distinguished professor of criminal justice at Penn State Harrisburg. He previously worked as a security executive for a Fortune 500 retailer. Ojmarrh Mitchell is associate professor in the department of criminology at the University of South Florida.