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Shopping while black?

J.P. liquor store staff finger UMass prof. as perp in cognac heist

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Shopping while black?
Robert Johnson Jr. (Photo: Don West)

In preparation for a summertime family reunion in Boston, Jamaica Plain resident Robert Johnson Jr. stepped into a Centre Street liquor store July 16 to pick up a bottle of good-quality cognac. Relatives from Cleveland had arrived in town, and Johnson and his cousin Clem have a tradition of getting together over a glass of cognac.

At the store, he inquired about selection and price, chose Hennessey, paid the approximately $36 price and left the store.

But 24 hours later, two Boston police officers — one black, one white — rang the doorbell of Johnson’s apartment on Lakeville Road near Jamaica Pond. They arrived while Johnson and additional family members just in from Florida were getting ready to go to a picnic dinner. They said they were looking for Robert Johnson. He was told he needed to come to the District 13 station.

“I was thinking, ‘What is this about? We gotta get to my cousin’s house,’” Johnson told the Banner.

He asked more than once before the officers would say what the problem was, he recounted in a written statement and in a telephone interview. Eventually one of the officers revealed that the visit was related to a larceny.

“When the guy said ‘larceny,’ I said, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy’ — I figured with a common name like mine, they just had it wrong,” said Johnson, 66, who is professor and chair of Africana Studies at University of Massachusetts-Boston as well as an attorney and author.

He felt it wise to cooperate, and agreed to come to the station on his own.

“I just wanted to get it resolved so we could move along,” he said. “And I didn’t want to alarm the neighbors. I’m the only black person in my building and on my street, so I was concerned about the police taking me out in handcuffs and all that stuff.”

Suspected

At the station, he was dumbfounded to learn that the police were indeed looking for him. Employees at Blanchard’s Wine & Spirits had photographed his truck’s license plate number and called 911. They had pegged Johnson as the same African American man who, back in March, had walked into the basement during store hours and loaded 20 bottles of cognac into a white van, then drove off.

The officers read Johnson his Miranda rights and produced a surveillance photo of the March 27 cognac thief. One of them said, “This is you,” according to Johnson.

Johnson said the photo did not look like him.

“I’m 66. That guy looked like he was 40. I’ve got a goatee. He had no facial hair, and seemed bigger than me,” he told the Banner.

The officers’ aggressive tone subsided quickly after they asked if he worked and became aware of his professional standing, he said. He was soon free to leave.

Racial profiling?

In Johnson’s view, the series of events is a clear case of racial profiling.

“You don’t make that mistake with white 66-year-olds buying cognac — you don’t suspect this is the guy that stole something, you don’t call the cops,” he said. “It’s definitely disparate treatment.”

Blanchard’s employees see it differently. According to store managers, multiple employees who saw Johnson — and who were also present the night of the March heist — thought they were face-to-face with the thief.

“I got a call from the manager on duty,” said Paul Myrer, a store manager. “He said he and a few other employees that were here when someone did break in, were pretty sure he was in the store [again]. They saw [Johnson] up close and were pretty sure it was him.

“I said if you think it’s him, call the police.”

No black-and-white case

Myrer and Denson do not dispute Johnson’s account — except to disagree that racial profiling occurred.

“It was a misunderstanding, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. … I don’t know if there’s anything else we could do,” said Myrer. “It was definitely not racial profiling. He just looked like the guy.”

The police report from the March liquor theft describes the perpetrator as a black non-Hispanic male approximately in his late 40s with a mustache and a dark complexion. The BPD declined to release any surveillance images the police showed when questioning Johnson, citing the continuing investigation.

Blanchard’s managers describe the Centre Street store as “diverse.” On a recent weeknight, Latino staff and several black customers were present. General manager Denson agreed to show the surveillance image of the thief briefly but declined to allow a reporter to take a photo of it. It’s a grainy photo of a mustached black man with a knit cap covering his hair.

Eyewitness misidentification was a cause in 72 percent of the first 325 wrongful convictions The Innocence Project has helped overturn through DNA testing. Studies of the “other-race effect” have shown the chance of mistaken identification goes up by about 50 percent when witness and a suspect belong to different racial groups.

Johnson feels he was misidentified because of race. He has filed a complaint with the city’s Licensing Board. He has reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union and plans to contact the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. He has notified the local JP Main Streets organization, in case a pattern emerges of greater scrutiny of non-white customers, he said.

He also is considering a civil lawsuit against Blanchard’s, potentially on such grounds as negligence, defamation of character, violation of civil rights or even emotional distress.

“They put into operation a police investigation. They uttered to police false information, that I was a thief and had stolen merchandise,” he said. “You have a right to be free to go into a place of public accommodation and not be hampered or hindered because of race.”

Johnson was not arrested and there is no public police report of Johnson’s visit to the District 13 station, but a BPD spokesperson confirmed the basic facts:

“A clerk called 911 and said [they] thought the person who stole was back in the store. Detectives responded to his home,” said Lieutenant Detective Mike McCarthy of the July 16-17 events. “He came to the station on his own later that evening. They showed him some photos and after talking with him they determined it was not him and that was the end of it.”

Nonetheless, the BPD’s civil rights unit is opening an investigation, McCarthy said. As of last week, civil rights officers had made contact with Johnson, who was out town, but had not yet interviewed him.

A struggle for humanity

Denson, the general manager, phoned Johnson last week after having been copied on the Licensing Board complaint. The conversation is reported to have been cordial and the two expect to meet soon, but Johnson did not indicate any change in his plans to file suit.

Ironically, not only is Johnson a scholar on race and the legal system, he is the author of a play called “Stop and Frisk” that explores racial profiling at the time of the notorious Charles Stuart case. A Boston Globe review of a 2014 staging noted that the play “feels all too close to home as it offers a rare theatrical view into the world behind the headlines of illegal searches and racial profiling in Boston.”

As an attorney, Johnson has represented black men imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, he said. He is keenly aware that things might have gone quite differently if he had a less polished history, if the police had encountered him in the store parking lot instead of at his home, or if he hadn’t kept his cool under questioning.

“That’s the bigger tragedy, that it could have been traumatic to someone who didn’t know his rights,” he said. “I knew if I cooperated with police I would be out of there. But they were on a track to make me one of those statistics — another black man arrested for stealing. It’s just routine for them.”

Johnson is willing to say that basically, the police were doing their job in this case. But he wonders if his race led them to treat him with less respect, for instance, asking “if” he worked instead of what he did for a living. Still smarting from the indignity of being suspected and questioned, he put the incident in a larger context.

“I’m a human being before I’m a lawyer or a professor,” he said. “It’s been a historic struggle to fully recognize the humanity of black people. It comes all the way from slavery.”

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