Racial profiling feared at Wal-Mart
Store managers delay a black customer for two hours. It took police 19 minutes to figure out he did nothing wrong.
By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2005
TAMPA - GAF Materials Corp. is handing out gift cards from Target as a reward to select employees this holiday season. That's because Wal-Mart, the discount store that held the business for years, last week called sheriff's deputies to apprehend a GAF manager on a bogus bad check rap while he was trying to buy this year's gift card supply.
"I keep going over and over the incident in my mind," said Reginald Pitts, the 34-year-old human resources manager for the roof material manufacturer's Tampa distribution center. "I cannot come up with any possible reason why I was treated like this except that I am black."
Wal-Mart has launched its own internal investigation of the incident, which store officials concede upfront "was handled very poorly."
"We've apologized to Mr. Pitts and are trying to find out exactly what happened so it does not happen again," said Sharon Weber, spokeswoman for the chain, based in Bentonville, Ark. "We do not tolerate racial discrimination or racial profiling at Wal-Mart."
GAF has been spending about $50,000 a year on gift cards at the Wal-Mart Supercenter at 11110 Causeway Blvd. in Brandon. For years GAF sent a white, female administrator to buy them without incident. This time, when she was on vacation the day before Thanksgiving, Pitts did the job himself. He phoned in the order for 520 cards, got the accounting department to issue Wal-Mart a $13,600 check and then encountered a royal hassle trying to exchange it for gift cards at the store.
"For a while there I thought I was going to prison," he said. "It was a totally humiliating experience."
For about two hours, store managers stalled on accepting the check for the already-printed gift cards, while Pitts stood waiting by the customer service desk. He had handed over his GAF business card, his driver's license and the toll-free numbers to GAF's bank. His accounting supervisor assured them over the phone that GAF, the nation's biggest roofing systems maker with revenues of $1.6-billion in 2004, was good for the check.
Two African-American Wal-Mart clerks watching all this from nearby told Pitts that several similarly sized transactions were made for other companies that day without delay, Pitts said. They suggested to Pitts that he was subjected to all the extra scrutiny by their bosses because he is black.
The thought made him physically ill.
Dressed in khaki pants and a blue button-down-collar dress shirt, Pitts finally got upset over the lengthy wait. He asked for the check back so he could go to another store. But store managers, who had kept huddled in a nearby office during most of his two-hour ordeal, refused to return it. The only explanation he got was that the store was having trouble "verifying" the check or who Pitts was.
Later, two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies appeared. One grabbed Pitts by the arm. He objected to the rough handling and asked if he was being arrested.
"We need to talk with you about this forged check that you brought in here," Pitts recalled deputy Bryan Wells saying. Later Wells explained the reason for the firm arm grab: "Well, Wal-Mart called us and reported to us that you committed a felony, and that's the way we approach felons," Pitts recalled.
Within 19 minutes deputies reviewed the evidence, determined there was no grounds for a criminal charge and learned Wal-Mart would not press the issue further. Wells handed the check to Pitts.
"Our deputies didn't even see enough (of a case) to write a report," said Lt. Carmen Rivas, the shift commander. "We responded only because Wal-Mart called in a bad check report."
To road deputies, the dispatch code means a possible felony.
Wal-Mart store manager Mark Cornett, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, told Pitts that he only "did what he had to do" before saying "have a great day, sir," according to Pitts.
Pitts was so shaken that he called his boss, Dennis Branch, a regional vice president for GAF in Savannah, Ga. Branch called Cornett and confirmed Pitts' version of the story.
"I was appalled," Branch said. "He wouldn't answer questions like, "Do you call the sheriff every time you cannot verify a check?' He got very defiant. He would not apologize and eventually hung up on me. Reggie had given them the names of several GAF VPs who could vouch for him. All they did was call the GAF guard house number they found in the phone book," which was not answered.
Wal-Mart said it has opened its own investigation of the matter after Pitts called Wal-Mart's complaint line and GAF, based in Wayne, N.J., and a closely-held unit of G-I Holdings Inc., lodged a complaint. GAF, which has 26 plants around the country, employs about 125 people in Tampa.
"We are very concerned about the way Mr. Pitts was treated by Wal-Mart," said Patricia Kim, GAF vice president of employment and labor. "We are awaiting Wal-Mart's response."
Wal-Mart's critics were not surprised. Wal-Mart, like many large retail chains, has been confronted by employment and promotion discrimination suits. In Boston, one suit claims Wal-Mart engaged in a form of racial profiling to prevent shoplifting.
"There has been a string of news reports and lawsuits around the country alleging discrimination and racial profiling in Wal-Mart stores over the past several years," said Paul Blank, director of WakeUpWalMart.com, a group backed by the United Commercial and Food Workers union that launched a campaign against the nonunion retailer in April. "Only time will tell if it's by policy or by practice."
So far, four Wal-Mart officials, including a regional vice president of operations at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, have called Pitts and apologized for the incident. But no one from the store did. And nobody from the company has offered an explanation of what happened.
"They have it all on tape someplace. I have been trying to find some reasonable explanation why they did this to me other than something racial," Pitts said. "So far they have not provided one."
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