Dillard settles racial dispute

Published June 20, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

A group of Kansas City, Mo., community leaders has settled its differences with Dillard Department Stores Inc. after the retailer apologized for any past mistakes in dealing with African-American customers and took steps to correct any problems.

The Little Rock, Ark., department store chain reaffirmed many longstanding company practices and agreed to develop new racial sensitivity courses for employees companywide.

"Dillard's is to be applauded for their movement," said Emanuel Cleaver, the mayor of Kansas City. He appointed a committee to confront Dillard's in December after a black shopper won a million-dollar award because of her treatment at a Dillard's in Overland Park, Kan.

The agreement may be a turning point in the sometimes rocky relations with black community groups in a number of cities, including the Tampa Bay area, where Dillard's has faced accusations of disparate treatment from some black customers.

After seven months of negotiations in the Kansas City dispute, Rabbi Michael Zedek, a committee member, said one paragraph of a three-page commitment from Dillard was the breakthrough that made the agreement possible:

"There is absolutely no place for discrimination anywhere. Where we have erred and made mistakes in the past we sincerely apologize," the store's letter reads. "If our employees exhibit prejudices at work, Dillard's has a duty to stop that behavior by any means including terminating the offender."

Dillard's, which operates 272 stores in 27 states, also released statistics aimed at proving it has a race-neutral record.

Of 250,000 employees on Dillard's payroll since 1993, 201 lodged racial discrimination complaints with government agencies. Of those, 163 cases were dismissed by government investigators for lack of evidence. Dillard prevailed in one case that went to trial while another was settled out of court. Twelve resulted in no finding and 24 are pending. Dillard said that its 81 percent dismissal record with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was better than the national average of 67 percent.

Since 1993, 23 employees filed racial discrimination lawsuits against the company. Seventeen were dismissed before trial or resulted in judgments in Dillard's favor. One was settled out of court. Five are pending.

Dillard's security forces arrested 50,000 of its 37.5-million shoppers for retail theft since 1993. The company subsequently was hit with 188 suits alleging unlawful detainment. Of those, 117 were thrown out of court or dismissed. Of the 18 cases that went to trial, juries found in Dillard's favor in 11. Two of the five cases Dillard lost were filed by African-Americans. The rest of the cases were settled out of court at an average payment of $6,708.

Most department stores hire their own security staff to handle shoplifting investigations, but Dillard hires off-duty police. In most department stores security forces work undercover, but Dillard prefers uniformed officers.

"We do it so shoppers can see uniformed officers," said Paul Schroeder, Dillard's vice president and general counsel. Retail loss prevention experts have said the practice may provide more deterrence but at the cost of more confrontation.

To settle the Kansas City dispute, Dillard also said it will train security and sales personnel about how minority shoppers might feel when they visit retail stores and will "seriously consider" philanthropic support of organizations that promote diversity and racial understanding.

The company also said it will post notices at stores giving customers the phone number of the store manager and a company vice president to register complaints and a pledge to respond to the complaint. Dillard officials were unsure Friday if that would become a companywide policy pending a review of internal policies in place for handling customer complaint investigations.

The Kansas City committee was formed after Paula Hampton of Overland Park, Kan., was awarded $1.1-million in a lawsuit against Dillard. Dillard asked the federal judge who presided over the trial to reduce the award or set aside the verdict. That motion is pending.

The jury found that Hampton was denied a free gift at Dillard's Oak Park Mall store because she is black. Hampton and a niece had been detained at the store when a security guard suspected the niece of shoplifting. No evidence of theft was found.

_ Information from the Kansas City Star and Knight Ridder was included in this report.