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Minnesota woman says police questioned her and her friends for 'shopping while black'

Brittany Bentley and her friends say they were unfairly accused of shoplifting at a Maple Grove Forever 21.

Brittany Bentley and her friends say they were unfairly accused of shoplifting at a Maple Grove Forever 21. Brittany Bentley

It was a normal Friday afternoon. Brittany “Tazz” Bentley of Brooklyn Center, her friend LaTanya Cannady, and her cousin Teiara Hayslett hopped out of their car and headed into the Maple Grove Forever 21.

Cannady carried with her a lime-green sweater she’d bought at the store some months back. Bentley says they wanted to do some color-matching and buy a few more things for a dance video they were making.

They grabbed shirts and shorts, checked out at the register, paid, and headed back to the car. That’s when Cannady looked up and noticed a few Maple Grove police officers noticing them, and “pointing” in their direction.

Bentley says she didn’t think much of it. That was, until a police car pulled behind them, preventing them from backing out, and another pulled up alongside. She says an officer approached the driver-side window and asked them what was going on.

“I don’t know,” she said, laughing a little. “You tell me.”

But Bentley says he didn’t tell her. Instead, he asked to see everyone’s ID. Instead of complying right away, Bentley asked him why.

“At this point, I was starting to get kind of frustrated,” she says.

Then, she says, the officer said something about “stolen merchandise.” Bentley told him he could check her bags, her receipts – heck, he could check the security footage in the store. She and the other women hadn’t stolen anything. Eventually, he approached Cannady in the backseat and told her to get out of the car. That’s about when Bentley took out her phone and started taking video.

On Bentley’s Instagram account, you can see Cannady standing stiffly in the parking lot with her arms crossed while an officer mills about behind her. The camera pans to the lime green sweater sitting in the backseat. This, Bentley explains behind the camera, is the crux of the issue.

“They’re trying to say that she stole this jacket when she literally walked into the store with this jacket… in her bag.”

The officer starts looking over the sweater while the women tell him they can prove it’s Cannady’s. They have photos of her wearing the sweater, text messages where it’s referenced. The officer doesn’t answer and starts rifling through bags in the backseat.

“He does not have permission to search anything in this car at all,” Bentley says.

“I don’t need your permission,” the officer answers. He swings the car door shut and walks off, sweater in hand, back to the store. When the video cuts back in, the officer is standing by the window again. He explains store management was “insistent” the women were shoplifting, although he can’t say what they allegedly stole.

“You guys didn’t take anything that he can prove, but he says that you guys had items that you guys were stealing inside of your purses.”

The women tell the officers if that’s the case, they want to go back inside and return everything they just bought, and speak to the manager while they’re at it. The officers tell them if they did, it would be considered trespassing.

In an open letter to the police department and Forever 21 Bentley and the other women crafted and co-signed later, she called the whole experience “disrespectful” and “degrading.” She feels they were treated like criminals for no other reason than "shopping while black." If they’d been three white women, she wrote, she doesn’t believe it would have played out quite the same way.

“It is apparent that implicit bias and blatant racism was at play, and that both the store manager, security, and the police perpetuated historical and blatant racism,” she wrote. She also thought none of those parties intended to do anything to rectify their mistake.

It’s not, she says, that this was the first time she’s been racially profiled. And, she says, she’s had plenty of positive – or at least neutral – experiences with cops, too.

“Not everybody’s an ass,” she says.

But this incident hit her in a weird place. She felt like she “needed” to say something, in her “mind” and her “heart.”

And she’s been heard in a big way. To her surprise, both the video and her letter have since blown up online.

“I didn’t think they were going to get this much attention,” she says. Days later, she’s a little overwhelmed with all the responses, the advice, the offers to help her get justice. Random commenters have been litigating what they saw in the video and what she said happened – some with solidarity and vows never to shop there again, others with accusations that she and her friends were making things up, or worse, somehow using the encounter to garner unearned sympathy.

“You’re just a ghetto, broke, trashy, wannabe model looking for attention!” one commenter on Bentley’s website wrote. She mostly shrugs it off.

“I feel like everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” Bentley says. She’s not about to debate a bunch of anonymous people on the internet about what happened – even if it does “bother” her a little bit.

But some of the responses that stand out the most are from the parties she was calling out – the police and Forever 21. The Maple Grove Police Department didn’t respond to interview requests, and Forever 21 declined to comment, but both have reportedly been in touch with Bentley.

She says she did go back to the store two days later to talk about what happened, and the assistant manager on duty had been “shocked” to hear about it. That’s not how they handle potential shoplifting situations, she allegedly said – nobody’s supposed to call the police unless someone actually sees a customer stealing something.

“She was very apologetic,” Bentley says. “She gave me a number to file a complaint, and I did.”

Meanwhile, she says the Maple Grove Chief of Police gave her a call Tuesday and said someone had been assigned to look into the case. They’ve made contact with her, she says, so things are moving along – slowly.

The Maple Grove Police Department put out a press release Wednesday afternoon describing the incident. Someone, it said, had reported a "theft in progress" at the store around 4:26 p.m.

"Arriving officers spoke with a loss prevention employee who provided information about a possible shoplifting that just occured," it said. "Officers located three individuals on scene, conducted a brief investigation, and determined that no criminal charges will be filed."

It went on to say that a "citizen complaint" had indeed been filed against the officers, and that the department was "aware" of "recent social media posts that contain video content."

"The Maple Grove police Department prides itself in providing high levels of service and takes complaints such as these very serious [sic]," it said. "Our agency is working to complete the investigation in a timely manner."

“This is a lot,” Bentley says. But she’s not backing down. As she said in her letter, she and her friends want one thing: never to go through this again.