The president of Nordstrom Rack personally apologized to three black teenagers on Tuesday after they were falsely accused of shoplifting last week at a Nordstrom Rack outlet in St. Louis, Missouri.
Mekhi Lee, a 19-year-old freshman at Alabama A&M University, told BuzzFeed News that he, along with two of his friends — Dirone Taylor, 18, and Eric Rogers, 18 — visited the Nordstrom Rack outlet to buy after-prom outfits.
Within five minutes they were "racially profiled" as two store employees followed the three young men around the store, Lee said.
"Wherever we went, they went. Whenever we looked up, they looked up," he said.
The three men decided to buy something to prove to the suspicious employees that they were not shoplifting. But as they exited the store and walked toward their car, three officers with the Brentwood Police Department approached them, Lee said.
The police told the three men that the store had accused them of theft and read out a list of items that they had been accused of stealing, according to Lee.
After the teens explained what had happened and showed the officers the receipt for their purchase, the police let them go without any charges, Lee said.
"The police did a good job. They understood everything," he said.
But the experience left the three young men "humiliated and embarrassed," Lee added.
It wasn't the first time he had been racially profiled at the Nordstrom Rack store, Lee said, but it was the first time police were called.
"Being a young black male, you experience certain things, you experience being watched, but no one ever takes it to the next level as much as they did," Taylor told KMOV. "By calling the police."
Lee said that he "felt like everyone was looking at us like we were three young black men doing something negative."
"We were not raised that way," he said. "I feel less than equal."
The teens said that they also had "an encounter" with a female customer at the store who called Taylor a "punk" and asked them, "Are your parents and grandparents proud of you?"
After local media coverage of the incident prompted outrage, Nordstrom Rack's president Geevy Thomas apologized to the three teens and met them along with their families, their attorney, and the NAACP's St. Louis chapter on Tuesday.
"Recently there was a situation in one of our Rack stores that resulted in our employees calling the police," Nordstrom said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News. "We have guidelines that direct our employees to only call the police in emergency situations. Unfortunately, those guidelines weren’t followed."
After meeting the men, Geevy said the company was conducting a "thorough internal investigation of the actions taken by our employees."
“I feel fortunate to have met these young men and their families," Geevy said in a statement. "I appreciate the opportunity to listen to their concerns and offer our sincere apologies on behalf of Nordstrom."
He also thanked the men for "their poise" in dealing with law enforcement and thanked the police for "handling the situation professionally."
Brentwood police did not return BuzzFeed News' request for comment.
The incident occurred in the wake of backlash against Starbucks and law enforcement after a video of two black men being arrested while waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks went viral. The city settled with the men for a symbolic $1 each — and a $200,000 grant to teach entrepreneurship, while Starbucks said it would close more than 8,000 stores and corporate offices in the US one afternoon in May to hold anti–racial bias training.
Adolphus M. Pruitt, the president of the NAACP in St. Louis, said that Nordstrom officials apologized to the three teens and praised them for how they handled the situation.
Pruitt said that the meeting concluded with all parties agreeing to a "continued dialogue with an emphasis on a common desire to prevent incidents of this nature from happening in the future; and the implementation of the things necessary to achieve such."