Friday, August 27, 2004

Mall accused of bias over tilted cap

Student says banning style
amounts to racial profiling

By Randy Tucker
Enquirer staff writer

Donnie Jefferson
Donnie Jefferson, 18, a Miami University student, says Cincinnati Mills guards showed racial bias when they told him to straighten his tilted cap.
FOREST PARK - A Miami University student says Cincinnati Mills guards who confronted him last week because he was wearing his ball cap tilted to the side did so because he is black.

The mall's conduct code prohibits apparel "likely to provoke a disturbance or embroil other groups or the general public in open conflict."

Mall general manager Jim Childress said the policy has been enforced since the former Forest Fair Mall reopened under new management Aug. 19.

"The tipping of cap bills sometimes will send a message that will incite a disturbance," Childress said.

Donnie Jefferson, 18, a Miami University sophomore from Bond Hill, said he had just entered the mall to shop for school supplies Friday when he was approached twice by mall security and handed a slip of paper that outlines the mall's conduct code.

"I wasn't the only one wearing a tilted ball cap that day," he said. "There were a lot of white teenagers dressed the same way. But black youths were the only ones being handed the codes of conduct and being hassled about what they were wearing and how they were wearing it."

Mall security is instructed to distribute the code to patrons not abiding by it.

Jefferson said he thinks the code is highly subjective and arbitrary and simply a means of profiling, or targeting, young blacks whom mall officials deem undesirable.

"To me, it was just racial profiling," he said. "It's ludicrous to believe that just because someone wears a fitted ball cap and a T-shirt that that means they will behave badly."

Childress confirmed that security guards approached Jefferson only because of the way he was wearing his ball cap.

Security guards have the right to remove patrons who violate the code of conduct and ban them from the mall, Childress said.

Hats worn backward

Several white young people gathered at the mall this week said they hadn't received the code-of-conduct fliers, despite apparently violating the code in the same manner as Jefferson.

"I've been walking through the mall for about 45 minutes, and nobody has approached me," said 23-year-old Delhi Township resident Dan Doyle, who is white and was wearing his Boston Red Sox hat backward - which mall officials said also would violate their code.

"Sometimes I wear my hat backward. Sometimes I wear it straight. It doesn't mean anything. I don't understand why the way I wear my hat would be of any concern to the mall."

Jaclyn Randall, 19, of Fairfield Township, who recently landed a job at the mall at Wireless Dimensions, said she sees white youths at the mall regularly wearing their ball caps reversed or tilted.

"Everybody I go to school with dresses like that, and they come to the mall," Randall said. "I've never heard of them being hassled."

Childress said the mall bases its security policies largely on input from Forest Park police who have a substation at the mall.

Forest Park Officer Steve Schmitz, acting crime prevention officer at the mall, said he's learned from experience that reversed or tilted ball caps could indicate a gang affiliation and intention to engage in gang activity, such as shoplifting, assault or vandalism.

But he acknowledged it's virtually impossible to distinguish between teens emulating "gangsta" fashion and gang members.

"You can't make a judgment on an individual's character by his dress alone."

Behavior, not clothes

Other malls in the region say they focus on conduct rather than clothing.

Even Dayton Mall, which has had problems with large groups of young people harassing other shoppers, has security policies based only on behavior.

The mall requires youths under 16 to be accompanied by someone over 21 after 4 p.m. on weekends. The policy has been effective for reducing the number of disturbances that led to the policy, general manager Michael Minns said.

"We still have teenagers coming to the mall, and many of them dress in the same types of clothes," Minns said. "But you can't say that because someone wears purple socks that they're good, bad or otherwise. It's actions that determine everything."

Mall operators are well within their rights to enforce their conduct codes any way they see fit, as long as they make patrons aware of the policies, said Dan Butler of the National Retail Federation, the nation's largest industry trade group.

"While it's certainly in the retailer's best interest to enforce the code evenly, they have every right to be as aggressive on a property as they need to be to keep a certain level of safety," Butler said.

The code of conduct at Tri-County Mall, which is less than 2 miles from Cincinnati Mills and attracts many of the same shoppers, also focuses on behavior.

"It doesn't matter who a person is or what their affiliations are, if they're not doing anything offensive or disturbing, then they're welcome to come and shop,'' said general manager Mike Lyons.

"The teenage clothing market is extremely important to us. If we target kids for the way they dress, we'd be discouraging some of our best customers from coming to the mall."


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