A professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston is pursuing a civil rights complaint against a Jamaica Plain liquor store for alleged racial profiling in July, when staffers wrongly pointed him out as the suspect in an earlier theft from the business.
Robert Johnson Jr., chairman of Africana Studies at UMass Boston, said that after he had purchased cognac at Blanchards on Centre Street on July 16, the staff identified him as the thief in a March incident.
A store employee also took a photo of Johnson’s license plate as he drove away with his son, he said.
When reached by phone Tuesday, employees at the store said no one was available to discuss the matter, and officials at the multi store company did not return phone calls seeking comment. The Bay State Banner first reported the incident.
Johnson, who is black, said two Boston police detectives came to his Jamaica Plain home the next evening and told him to come to the station for an interview in a larceny case, bewildering family members who were in town for a reunion.
During the interview, a black detective showed him a photo of the suspect and said it was the “spitting image of you,” Johnson said. The detective then asked Johnson if he worked, and he replied that he was a UMass professor.
“Once I told him I was a professor, his whole [demeanor] just changed,” said Johnson, who is also an attorney.
Johnson, 66, added that he produced his driver’s license and university ID, and insisted those photos bore no resemblance to the suspect, and he was permitted to leave. When he mentioned that he planned to return to the store to complain about his treatment, the detective said he would do the same if he were Johnson, according to the professor.
“It was terrible,” Johnson said, noting that relatives including his 9-year-old granddaughter were visiting when police arrived at his door. “It was very embarrassing and very hurtful.”
Johnson said his complaint against Blanchards is pending with the Boston police civil rights unit, which will recommend to city licensing officials what action, if any, to take against the store. He said he plans to meet with the civil rights unit next week, and he hopes store employees will undergo racial sensitivity training.
Boston police Officer Rachel McGuire, a department spokeswoman, confirmed that detectives interviewed Johnson in connection with the March theft and determined he was not the suspect.
She said the report on the interview was not publicly available, and she could not confirm details of Johnson’s conversation with detectives, citing the ongoing investigation.
McGuire confirmed Johnson’s intent to file a civil rights complaint against Blanchards, but said she was unsure of its status. “Upon receiving his complaint, we will launch an investigation,” she said.
Johnson said he went to the store after the police interview and told an employee that he felt it was “unfair of you all to accuse me of something I didn’t do,” and he was given contact information for Mike Denson, the general manager.
According to Johnson, Denson called him back a week later and “apologized profusely.” Attempts to reach Denson for comment were unsuccessful.
According to a police report on the March theft, Blanchards employees reported that a black man in his late 40s stole about 20 bottles of alcohol from the basement.
The man wore a black knit hat, black coat, green sweater, and blue jeans, and broke some bottles while loading the merchandise into a white vehicle, possibly a Dodge Caravan, with a Massachusetts license plate that included the numbers 334, police said.
Johnson said he was driving his blue Ford Ranger pickup truck when he bought the cognac in July. During that visit, Johnson said, he asked employees for the location of the cognac and the prices of three brands before purchasing a $36 bottle of Hennessy.
“If I was the thief who came in in March, I doubt I would initiate that contact, but more importantly, I wouldn’t have bought the cognac,” he said. “They had no reason to suspect that I was a criminal. The only thing was my race.”
Michael Curry, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, said in a statement, “Some want to characterize this as a case of mistaken identity but it really fits into a broader theme of racial profiling or at least the overcriminalization of black men, and black and brown communities.”
Curry continued, “We’ve hopefully come a long way in the wake of the first black president to dispel the myth that we all look alike. In this case, they identified a man who is molding and shaping the next generation of thought leaders, not stealing bottles!”