Georgetown retailers deny racial profiling through app

WASHINGTON — Georgetown Business Improvement District — the organization representing Georgetown retailers — denies racially profiling African American customers, but acknowledges it uses a real-time sharing app called GroupMe.

The app allows shopkeepers to quickly report suspicious behavior to D.C. police and to each other.

Georgetown businesses have long tried to improve communication among businesses, through a variety of methods, including phone trees and email lists. The Washington Post, which first reported the story, has raised questions about how the app is being used, prompting the business district to deny its use in profiling.

GroupMe says its app is like a private chat room that works on every digital device.

“Like retail districts around the country we have a shoplifting issue,” says Joe Sternlieb, CEO and president of Georgetown BID.

He says retailers are encouraged to first call 911 to report crimes, but to then share the information on GroupMe, describing the individuals and where they might be headed.

D.C. police were unavailable to comment on the use of the app, but Sternlieb says more than 40 officers assigned to the Metropolitan Police Department’s Second District routinely monitor and use the app.

“We’re very sensitive to the possibility that a wide-open social media tool like this could be abused,” Sternlieb says.

Although “African American” has been used in texted descriptions used in the app, Sternlieb insists there are safeguards against racial profiling.

“This is a closely controlled, moderated app with very strict rules … the rules are behavior only, call 911 first, only criminal activity,” Sternlieb says.

Georgetown retailers began using the app in 2014.  Georgetown BID says an analysis of texts sent between January and August 2015 found the vast majority of posts reported a crime and/or suspicious behavior.  He says about 14 posts out of hundreds were racial profiling.

“We don’t allow it to be used for that, so if that’s what somebody’s doing we throw them out of the group,” Sternlieb says.

Georgetown BID says its analysis also reveals that African American app users posted word of suspicious behavior or crimes using “African American” as part of the description at the same rate as non-African Americans, about 70 percent of the time.

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