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‘Operation GroupMe’ was meant to fight shoplifting, enables racial profiling instead

Georgetown has had a shoplifting problem lately, so local citizens turned to group-messaging app GroupMe for help. The Georgetown Business Improvement District partnered with local police to launch “Operation GroupMe” early last year to connect small businesses, police officers, and community leaders in a concerted fight against shoplifting. Instead, it’s become an exercise in racial profiling.

Local police in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood recorded more than 120 thefts in just the last 60 days, according to CBS News. The group-messaging chat room, which comprises 380 members, was meant to help shopkeepers, police, and others alert each other about shoplifters or people who seem suspicious.

In the more than 3,000 messages exchanged about suspicious people in the Operation GroupMe group since January, nearly 70 percent were black, according to a review by the Business Improvement District. This is a particularly startling finding, given that nearly 80 percent of Georgetown’s residents are white.

Here’s a sampling of the messages:

  • “AA female late 20…just stole from Lacoste”
  • “Need someone ASAP…person walking out…BLK male”
  • “Suspicious shoppers in store. 3 female. 1 male strong smell of weed. All African American. Help please.”

In one exchange highlighted by an in-depth story from The Washington Post, a True Religion store employee replied to an American Apparel retailer who reported theft asking what the suspects looked like. “Ratchet. Lol,” the employee replied.

Participants have also uploaded hundreds of photos to the GroupMe chat room. Since March last year, these pictures showed more than 230 shoppers, of which 90 percent were African-American.

Joe Sternlieb runs the Georgetown Business Improvement District and says “a very small percentage, maybe less than 5 percent” of those identified as African-American are actually arrested.

“If somebody posts something that’s inappropriate, the group, actually our staff, goes out and meets with the person, retrains them, makes sure they are comfortable with the rules and can abide by them, and if they don’t, we kick them off,” Sternlieb told CBS News.

One local showroom manager has had enough of the excessive messages and racial profiling happening in Operation GroupMe, which she left. “I hate profiling just because they’re a certain ethnicity, but unfortunately, it’s the reality of what’s happened.”